Bangkok Post reviews
Fabulous fount of Chinese fine dining
- Writer: Bangkok Post Editorial
- Published: December 9, 2011 at 10:00 am
Yuan at Millennium Hilton not only has all the essential ingredients of exceptional Chinese culinary experiences but chic style, modern aspirations and a real star quality view
Chinese food fans tend to be a traditionally-minded bunch who expect certain elements of the experience to always be present. From rustic food shops to mandarin-worthy restaurants, there is a check list that proprietors play with at their peril.
At the uppermost end of the scale, restaurants such as Yuan, meaning 'source' or 'fountain', one of the jewels in the Millennium Hilton's fine dining crown, must have at least one accomplished, authentic Chinese chef commanding the kitchen. There must be an assortment of tables to accommodate everyone from couples to extended families. And a long list of items must be on the menu.
But when you want to go further, as in Yuan's case, and make a more cosmopolitan fist of it, you need something else. And so, while unmistakably Chinese fine dining in style, with Middle Kingdom motifs and round tables with rotating trays draped in snowily starched cloths, a clean contemporary design aesthetic informs Yuan's site lines. Moreover, a large glass wine cellar is prominently displayed and, upstaging everything, is one of the most precious features any restaurant can possess in this fair city: a panoramic view of the River of Kings.
Even the approach to the restaurant is out of the ordinary. Entering the hotel lobby, proceed past reception on the right to a glass elevator on the left and hit the 2nd floor button (the actual elevation is closer to 3-4 because the ground floor towers upwards atrium fashion). On the way up, enjoy the view over Flow, the all-day dining restaurant, and tantalising glimpses of the riverside tableau. On arrival, hang a right to Yuan's open-arched entrance and holding area devoted to its extensive selections of teas and associated paraphernalia.
Indeed, tea is another aspect of Chinese dining you shouldn't neglect and Yuan takes it especially seriously. Staff are specifically trained in the intricacies of teas, their preparation and serving, by internationally renowned tea master Wen Tao. The results of his expert instruction are most visible in the theatrical way in which some teas are served, with the waiter or waitress performing all kinds of acrobatic contortions in order to pour tea into the cup or hot water into the pot from a copper kettle with a 1-m long spout.
Many of the teas are known for their healing the soothing properties. For instance, Gingko Tea improves memory, alertness and mental clarity. Chrysanthemum Tea, with herbal notes, is renowned for its cooling properties, while Ti Kuan Yin Oolong is a detoxifying blend that helps prevent aging. Then there is the much sought-after, nut-flavoured white tea known as Bai Hao Yin Zhen, (Silver Needle), plucked from China's top tea-growing region, Fujian, and the equally prized dark and smoky-flavoured Oolong tea from Taiwan's 2,500m high Ali Shan mountains. Also worth trying is an aromatic, low tannin and caffeine, clean-tasting mix of osmanthus aromatic dried flower tea and shui xian that is especially good for your blood. A personal favourite, first encountered here, is Jiaogulan which has ginseng-like properties and a unique slightly sweet taste.
Altogether over 30 varieties of white tea, black tea, red tea, green tea, pu'er tea, flower tea and blends are served by Yuan, in addition to free-flow excellent jasmine tea, all of which can also be purchased for brewing at home.
Moving on, you enter the restaurant proper which stretches across to an open kitchen behind the wine cellar, so imbuing the atmosphere with human bustle that complements the activity on the river, clearly visible through a panoramic glass wall.
Seating is divided into a higher level at the back and a lower level closer to the window, so everyone gets a view. Elegant private dining rooms for 10 up to 35 diners are also allotted prime space beside windows. Another section, separated by glass at the rear of the restaurant, offers intimate alcoves.
What with the river, there's no real need for embellishment in the decor but great care is nevertheless lavished to make it both comfortable and stimulating to the eye. A dramatic ornamental suspended ceiling sculpture stands out in particular. Subtle lighting highlights formal place settings while Imperial scarlet, gold and bitter chocolate play off seal-grey velvet upholstered chairs and light olive walls, altogether expressing a typically Chinese sense of occasion informed by the eternal.
But it is not just the exceptional decor that makes Yuan a favourite among Cantonese cuisine Cognoscenti. Its seamless marrying of Chinese traditional flavours with a unique twist of Thailand is nowhere bettered in Bangkok.
We started our explorations with a selection of fine dim sums from the All You Can Eat lunchtime menu, including Steamed prawn dumplings, Steamed pork dumplings with crab roe, Steamed Shanghai-style buns with egg custard, Steamed snow fish dumplings and chives, Deep-fried bean curd filled with minced prawns, Deep-fried wontons, and Deep-fried leek and shrimp dumplings. Also outstanding are various ha gao, including not only fine prawn versions, but also luxurious lobster types which need no sauce to enhance the wonderfully fresh flesh. We also enjoyed stir-fried soft shell crab with XO sauce, Baked squids with salt and chilli, Wok-fried prawns with black pepper sauce, and Roasted duck and roasted pork. Complementing all this was Chinese spinach with a light steamed garlic sauce and the slightest dusting of deep-fried garlic, a delicacy in its own right.
Each item was sublime.
Next the Szechuan soup arrived, a complex dish that offers dedicated chefs the opportunity to rise above the ordinary, as indeed was the case here. Then came pan-fried prawns in salted egg sauce, another delicacy consummately discharged. For our piece de resistance, meanwhile, we chose live bamboo fish priced at 170 baht for 100 grams set in a subtle sweet and sour sauce. The abundant white flesh with its crisp coating combined with sticky sauce was Cantonese comfort food par excellence.
Also indicating Yuan's angling to create wider interest in Cantonese cuisine is an extra effort to pair dishes with wine. A special wine menu recommends wines to go with different dishes - and not just several well-edited Chinese rice wines. Want to know what goes best with BBQs and roast? Or bird's nest, shark's fin and abalone? Lobster and Prawns? The menu explains.
To do justice to preceding dishes, we selected a dessert of deep-fried pancake stuffed with red dates. These transpired to be another classic raised to a fine art. So excellent were they - fresh and fruity, crisp and chewy - that we could have gone on eating them until we were incapacitated.
As every Cantonese chef worth his salt knows, the concept of yin and yang, balancing different foods, preparation techniques and even saucepans, is central to creating the kind of harmonies that lie at the heart of the cuisine at its best. Done with passion, as at Yuan, it can achieve an almost spiritual quality. There's really nothing quite like it.
Yuan (Open daily)
2nd floor, Millennium Hilton Bangkok.
Tel. 02 442 2000.
11.30 a.m.- 2.30 p.m. (Monday-Saturday)
11.00 a.m. - 3.00 p.m. (Sunday)
6.00 p.m. - 11.00 p.m.
Seating capacity: 127