HONG KONG - From chicken cubes fried with peanuts to neatly tucked dumplings, Chinese cuisine is known for its attention to detail.
But for its most honored official guests, the Chinese government raises the bar, serving a state dinner that shows off the national cuisine at its most meticulous. At such dinners, tofu is sliced as thin as angel hair, shrimp balls are covered in crispy bread crumbs, and diced pork cooked with red rice is molded into the shape of giant cherry.
Hong Kong is getting a rare glimpse of this rarefied meal at a local restaurant that recently hired on a temporary basis a top Chinese government chef, Peng Gaofa, the cook of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
Kicking things off on the state-dinner set menu that Peng is serving at Wing Lai Yuen Szechuan Noodles Restaurant is the appetizer Royal Court Prosperity Flowers, consisting of small, thin turnip rolls spiced up with pieces of chili and arranged like a bouquet. It's a refreshing, but light, sweet-hot combination that arouses the appetite for more.
Other appetizers are more distinguished by design than taste. Consider the sliced cucumbers arranged in a heart shape: To make them, Peng finely slices a slab of cucumber, leaving each slice with a small section still attached, then presses down firmly on the entire slab to create a fanlike effect. Then he builds several slabs into a heart shape.
United in Four Seas features three peeled tomatoes filled with honey laid on a bed of ice, surrounded by pieces of tomato skin cut to resemble flower petals.
However, two main-course highlights back up style with substance.
East meets West in Gold Medal Shrimp Balls, a dish Peng once prepared for late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Balls of shrimp chunks are encrusted with bread crumbs to give them a crispy hash brown-like texture, except that the coating is thinner and finer. But the real sensory delight comes at the first bite into a shrimp ball's butter and melted coconut core. Each bite is meaty, but the lingering flavor of coconut completes the taste.
Plain Stewed Crab Meat Lion's Heads, said to be a favorite of both the 18th-century Chinese emperor Qian Long and former President Jiang, are gourmet meatballs with a twist. Instead of the usual minced pork, Peng uses pork pieces mixed with crab meat and chopped watercress.
The result: Meatballs that lack the usual bounce. Each bite is loose but chunky. Peng describes the taste as "fatty but not oily" - rich but not over the top.
Another imperial dish has a commoner's touch. Qian Long Imperial Meal Dried Shreds is made of dried tofu slices cooked in a chicken broth along with shrimp pieces. It's light but tasty fare that's almost more than an appetizer.
There are still more courses where form takes precedence over substance. The most extreme is the "viewing dish," a standard state-dinner item prepared purely for viewing pleasure.
Peng created a golden pheasant from slices of cucumber, carrot and mango slices, along with a brown-striped tail made of glutinous flour mixed with cocoa powder.
Another showy dish, Happiness All Around, mixes bland shreds of egg white and shrimp pieces - but it's beautifully constructed. Peng places the egg white and shrimp on a mat of shredded scrambled eggs, circles it with petal-like tomato slices, and tops it with dried yellow duck yolk.
Two other dishes Peng cooked for reporters but left off the Wing Lai Yuen state-dinner menu also highlight his artistry.
Cherry Meat uses diced fatty pork cooked with red rice and molded into a ball with a bowl to resemble a giant cherry. After creating the "cherry," Peng carefully wipes away any excess red sauce from around the mound of meat on the plate. Then he meticulously lays out strings of the green Chinese vegetable dou miao by the meat, making a branch-like arrangement.
The soy-sauce marinated chicken in Egg Beautiful Whole Chicken is unexceptional, but the surrounding dumplings underscore Peng's perfectionism. Their contents - including ham, shrimp, mushroom, shiitake mushrooms and bamboo shoots - are encased in yellow egg wrappers tied with thin celery strings, like little satchels.
This focus on aesthetics seems to run counter to the no-frills roots of what is still officially a communist state despite capitalist reforms, where drab tight-collared Mao suits were once de rigueur for Chinese leaders.
But the bare-bones mind-set appears to have been at least selectively applied where food was concerned. Plain Stewed Crab Meat Lion's Heads, the royal dish, was served at an official dinner celebrating communist China's founding in 1949, Peng said.
Several of the current state-dinner dishes were former imperial dishes or based on them, according to Peng. Ideological differences between communism and monarchy rule apparently don't extend to the culinary realm.
But, Peng said, many of the official dinner courses are picked for their universal appeal. Dishes originating in the city of Yangzhou in the coastal Jiangsu province are popular because their mild taste is more acceptable to a wider range of foreign guests, in contrast to the spicy flavors of the inland Sichuan and Hunan provinces.
Peng, who is on loan to Wing Lai Yuen for one year, said his employer, former president Jiang, is equally at home with gourmet cuisine and regular home cooking. But, he said, "He eats very lightly."
The Chinese state-dinner set menu offered at Hong Kong's Wing Lai Yuen Szechuan Noodles Restaurant:
Royal Court Prosperity Flowers (chili wrapped in thin turnips rolls) or United in Four Seas (peeled and iced tomatoes filled with honey).
Cold Greenhouse Cucumbers (finely sliced cucumbers arranged in the shape of a heart).
Peony Jellyfish (jellyfish shaped like a peony).
Premier Vegetarian Eel (shiitake mushroom molded into eel shape)
Gold Medal Shrimp Balls (fried shrimp balls with melted butter and coconut core encrusted with bread crumbs)
Ancient Method Cooked Eggplant (fried orchid-shaped eggplant).
Qian Long Imperial Meal Dried Shreds (dried tofu shreds with shrimp in chicken broth).
Plain Stewed Crab Meat Lion's Heads (pork balls mixed with crab meat).
Prosperity Fish (dry cooked Chinese gui hua fish surrounded by noodle balls).
Imperial Class Reef Fish (fried gui hua fish with tomato sauce).
Happiness All Around (shreds of egg white and shrimp pieces topped with dried duck egg yolk).
Streaming Tofu Soup (finely sliced tofu and hair-like nostoc in chicken broth).
Dan Dan Noodles (Sichuan-style spicy noodles with peanut sauce).
Wing Lai Yuen Szechuan Noodles Restaurant is located at Shop 102-105, Whampoa Gourmet Place, Whampoa Garden, Hung Hom, Kowloon, Hong Kong. Telephone: (852) 2320 5156. Each Chinese state dinner is designed for 12 people as a set menu and costs about $380. Reservations are recommended a week in advance.