JOHOR BARU, June 24 — Who can be blamed for sticking to old favourites? Every time I visit JB, I can’t help but go for the usual suspects — made-to-order chee cheong fun in Taman Pelangi, bottomless refills of Goh Zha Lang’s Taiwanese-style porridge in Taman Sentosa, and Ta Pai Tang’s crispy yán jú jī (salt baked chicken) in Taman Melodies.
Fortune falls on those who keep trying: I may have discovered a new favourite. Jade Restaurant (its name in Chinese, Fěi Cuì Xuān, translates to “Jade House” or “Jade Manor”) only opened last November in Danga Bay and already it has built a loyal following of discerning foodies.
This is in part due to KL-born Chef Hong, formerly of Singapore’s Majestic Restaurant, who heads the kitchen with experience in many countries including Hong Kong and Taiwan. Thanks to an innate curiosity and exposure to the different Chinese regional cuisines, Chef Hong has developed a personal style that is best described as contemporary Chinese, albeit with a strong Cantonese influence.
Our first course is quite the showstopper: a large ice globe arrives on a bed of snowy shaved ice. This is the cold starter of ice vegetables or lěng bàn shuǐjīng bīng cài. Using a small mallet, we crack open the ice globe to reveal a cloud of chilled greens. These are the leaves of the bīng cài or crystalline ice plant (Mesembryanthemum crystallinum).
A succulent plant native to Africa, the bīng cài has distinctive bladder cells that trap water. Served thus, they resemble sleeves of crystal bubbles; at once icy and crunchy, mildly sweet and salty. There are three different dips — goma dare (sesame seed dressing), wasabi shoyu (Japanese horseradish and soy sauce) and a tart passion fruit vinaigrette — to savour each leaf with.
Taken altogether, we have a dish that marries different parts from China, Japan and Africa. Chef Hong says, “It’s meant to be refreshing beginning to the meal, to kick-start the appetite. Also, rather than serving the bīng cài flat on a plate, I prefer a bit of height to create a wow effect.”
Other appetisers aren’t as much of a spectacle but retain much of Chef Hong’s trademark flair with balancing flavours and textures. The deep-fried crispy fish skin with salted egg yolk is a winner, remaining fragrant and crispy to the last bite. The marinated jelly fish has just the right amount of bite while the old-school Hainanese chicken feet (lǔ jī zhuǎ), marinated with superior soy sauce and Sichuan peppercorns, are melt-in-your-mouth tender.
No Chinese meal, especially for the Cantonese, is complete with a bowl of clear soup. Double-boiled chicken consommé with fresh Chinese yam and wolfberries fits the bill, though Chef Hong adds some local flavour by adding tongkat Ali. The soup, surprisingly, doesn’t have too strong of a herbal taste. This doesn’t prevent our server giving everyone a wink and promising it’ll give all of us quite a “boost”!
Seafood is impeccably fresh. A subtle touch of truffle oil elevates our braised four-head premium abalone, tofu and asparagus in oyster sauce. When asked if this is a signature dish, Chef Hong shares that he doesn’t really have one. He explains, “For me, a signature dish is whatever our customers want. We have to make it good enough that they’ll keep coming back for more.”
The highlight for many would be the crab course; here it is stir-fried in aromatic chilli sauce that is thankfully not too overpoweringly sweet. There is definitely heat; Chef Hong isn’t afraid of spice. There is a variety of crabs on offer, including Alaskan crabs (which require booking in advance). A side of fluffy steamed mántou, deep-fried to add some crunch, are a must for sopping up the delicious crab gravy.
Rice lovers will appreciate Chef Hong’s seafood fried rice with X.O. sauce and golden fried rice with salted egg yolk. The former employs his secret recipe for the iconic Cantonese condiment, refined during his stint in Hong Kong. We detect hints of conpoy (dried scallop), dried shrimp, chillies, garlic and a little something extra. Whatever it is, it sure is addictive.
Sweet endings showcase Chef Hong’s deft hand at Cantonese dim sum, with handmade desserts such as huángjīn liúshā bāo (custard buns with salted egg yolk) and dòushā bǐng (pan-fried sweet pancakes). One seasonal specialty is his crispy fried durian balls; we wonder if he’d do a custom order with Musang King or Udang Merah.
At the moment, Chef Hong’s offerings at Jade Restaurant are still relatively conservative by his standards as the owners wish to slowly introduce their concept of Chinese fine dining in the city. We can only imagine — and eagerly await — the heights of culinary creativity when that time comes. Even now this is surely a feast worthy of the Jade Emperor.
Jade Restaurant 翡翠轩
Greenland Danga Bay, Jalan Skudai, Johor Baru
Open daily lunch 12pm-3pm & dinner 6pm-11pm
Tel: 016-742 8855, 016-425 3303 & 016-426 3303