Mix Sichuan spices with a dash of secrecy and you've got a recipe for success—Hong Kong-style
There are those who will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid being discovered. Wang Xiaoqiong and Wang Hai, the owners of Da Ping Huo, have never hung a sign outside their Sichuan restaurant or listed their address and phone number in the book. Still, it takes four months to get a table at their restaurant, hidden away on an industrial side street overlooking Hong Kong's Central business district.
With its sleek furniture, Buddha statues, and black-and-white photographs, Da Ping Huo seems more a gallery than a restaurant. Its dishes are authentic Sichuan, a rarity in Cantonese-dominated Hong Kong. And it's exclusive. Its reputation is spread by word of mouth, as the Wangs skirt licensing laws by treating the 26 patrons at each seating like guests at a dinner party.
The restaurant is open just three nights a week. Its menu depends on the ingredients chef Wang Xiaoqiong finds in Hong Kong's open-air markets and the spices she regularly imports from Chengdu, capital of her native Sichuan province. "I don't cook fancy dishes. Mine is traditional, home-style cooking," says Ms. Wang, who moved to Hong Kong 16 years ago and found that its faux Sichuan cuisine was missing the crucial regional seasonings that can twist taste buds into knots.
Her pungent dishes, like mapuo dofu, spicy bean curd, possess both la and ma qualities: that is, their chilies and flowering peppercorns produce a complex fusion of hot, tingling, and numbing sensations. Her lighter preparations—say, a sauté of corn, pine nuts, and green peppers—demonstrate that Sichuan dishes don't have to be searing to be flavorful. Among Ms. Wang's favorites: poached fish flavored with Sichuan pickles and five varieties of peppers; and "husband's and wife's lungs"—beef brisket, tendons, and entrails braised with star anise, pepper, and herbs and topped with celery, peanuts, and sesame seeds. Her 12-course banquets include hot and cold appetizers, entrées, a soup, steamed dumplings or spicy noodles, and a dessert, often sweet tofu topped with diced seasonal fruit and crushed rock sugar.
Guests are greeted by Mr. Wang, a celebrated painter and TV talk-show host, who serves as maître d' and sole waiter. "Our first customers were friends," he says, "then friends of friends." The restaurant quickly evolved from those weekly dinner parties. Patrons would meet in a bar to be escorted to clandestine dining rooms in a furniture store or a warehouse. But a year ago the couple moved to their current digs, a former printing shop in the fashionably gritty SoHo, or South of Hollywood Road, neighborhood.
As the Wangs' reputation has grown, so has Da Ping Huo's need for city permits. It should be licensed shortly, just in time for their move to a larger location. The new restaurant will still serve a fixed menu, and the Wangs insist there will be no sign above its door.
A classically trained soprano, Ms. Wang plans to continue another tradition. As each meal concludes, she steps from the kitchen, dressed in a black silk ensemble, to sing a Chinese folk song. "In Hong Kong, people only listen to pop," she laments. So along with dessert, she delivers a bit of old-fashioned entertainment.
Sichuan Cuisine Da Ping Huo, 852/2559-1317 for reservations and directions; dinner for two $52; seatings at 6:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.