There’s an old saying that goes, ‘if the teapot doesn’t leak, the china isn’t chipped, and the wait staff aren’t bellowing about siu mai, then it’s not real yum cha.’ Well, the folks at Michelin star restaurant Chuugoku Hanten Fureika would beg to differ. Gone are the Lazy Susans and trolley ladies of yesteryear. At Chuugoku Hanten Fureika, it’s all about elegance and understated perfection, reflected both in its superb food and immaculate interior design.
Tokyo Cheapo continues its series of reviews on cheap Michelin star restaurants in Tokyo offering the finest morsels of food at affordable prices. Last time, I reviewed Kyourakutei, a homely yet well respected soba restaurant tucked into an unassuming alleyway in Iidabashi. This time, I’ve set my sights on a place that is perhaps even more revered for its impeccable standards in taste, technique, presentation, and flair. Chuugoku Hanten Fureika, a former two-star Michelin restaurant in Higashiazabu, Minato-ku, has a range of dining options catering to Cheapos, kings, and everyone in between. Regardless of wallet size, you’re bound to have an unrivaled experience at this one-star Michelin establishment.
For those Cheapos who can manage to visit Chuugoku Hanten Fureika during the week, you can sample the noodle lunch course for 2,000 yen, which includes a choice between soup noodles such as hot ground pork and Suzhou style. However, if you happen to go to this restaurant on a weekend or are hankering for something a little more deluxe, have the dim sum course for 3,300yen (tax included). Chuugoku Hanten Fureika specialises in the Cantonese and Hokkien answer to the Western brunch; as such, its yum cha offerings are not to be missed. The added benefit of selecting this option is the multiple courses which are given to you at a relaxed pace, lending a sense of luxury to the usually brief(er) experience of dining at lunchtime.
Sensational Setting, Curious Music
The familiar melody of the Frank Sinatra hit, ‘My Way,’ comes out of the less familiar Yangqin, a Chinese musical instrument that an elegant musician strikes with liquid flicks of her forearms. It’s a good start to my time at this restaurant. The lighting is dim and the setting is hushed; an imperial table displays a large tree, the centrepiece of the dining room. The ambience is not unlike what you’d expect in a museum housing priceless artefacts from the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Dim Sum Degustation
The first course of the yum cha tasting menu is brought to me efficiently, an appetiser of char siu and sliced cucumbers topped with XO sauce. The XO sauce is oily, rich, and has the essence of that sweetness which can only be found in scallops. All elements on the plate are unified, with the cucumber playing the supporting part to the caramelised char siu.
Waiters pour my pu’er tea (kept warm in the pot thanks to a tealight candle) and survey the area as I wait for the second course. One of them lifts the bamboo lid off a steamer to reveal three of what appear like perfect specimens of classic steamed dim sum. They are seated next to two fried dim sum, haam sui gao (a fried glutinous rice dumpling filled with pork) and char siu sou (a flaky fried pastry containing barbequed pork).
Suffice it to say I’ve had a few ha gao in my time, although as my family will confirm I would always discard the prawn filling until I discovered how misguided this approach was as a teenager. Thankfully, those days have long passed, but I still delight in eating the unbroken skin of a ha gao dumpling, and am more than a little disappointed when I find one that has been split. Unfortunately, that was what I had at the restaurant, although the ha gao filling was very juicy. The bo choi gao (steamed dumpling with spinach) was much better executed. The siu mai, however, was the real surprise on the plate. Rather than being a combination of pork and prawn, Chuugoku Hanten Fureika’s version was somewhat like another mainstay of yum cha, lo mai gai (steam glutinous rice and chicken wrapped in a lotus leaf). The contents of the siu mai was flavoursome, although I would have liked a bigger hit of pork than what I got.
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It was impossible to fault the haam sui gao and char siu sou, so refined as they were and proving that when done well, customers shouldn’t shy away from the fried offerings at yum cha. The pastry on the char siu sou was particularly moreish, it being buttery, light, and flaky.
The lunch progressed with a dish of lightly fried chicken and pumpkin, and fried rice with egg and barbequed pork. Both dishes were as you’d come to expect, being delicious and immaculately presented, though they were ultimately less memorable than the previous dim sum plate.
For dessert, customers can choose between four options: almond jelly, mango milk with tapioca, coconut milk with tapioca, and black sesame pudding. Each of the desserts pays homage to dishes found even in the most humble of local yum cha establishments. I chose the mango milk with tapioca, a gussied-up version of the mango pudding. The tapioca gave some textural interest to the dessert. The milk was delicate and nicely chilled, and thankfully did not have the cloyingly sweet taste of confected mangoes. The unexpected bonus was small pieces of blood orange mixed in with the tapioca, giving a subtle bitterness and acidity to the dessert.
Chuugoku Hanten Fureika is a restaurant that oozes class and simplicity. Cheapos should expect to have an experience there which surpasses their expectations of taste and service. While dinner at Chuugoku Hanten Fureika will most likely leave its customers with empty pockets at the end of the night, thankfully this one-star Michelin restaurant has an array of lunch sets available for those with smaller budgets for eating out. If prepared to dine out at lunch rather than dinner, Chuugoku Hanten Fureika proves to its customers that food of the highest quality need not have attached to it the highest of prices.