Ask food writers around town what their favourite restaurants are and you might be surprised. Invariably, it isn’t the latest Michelin-starred restaurant or fancy molecular gastronomy practitioner that tops their list, but tried, tested and much-loved family faves.
One of my all-time favourites was Yun Yan, a Sichuan restaurant owned by the Mira Group (the folks behind The French Window, School Food and Tsui Hang Village), which had been sitting in Tsim Sha Tsui’s Miramar Mall for almost twenty years. Every birthday, special occasion or just for the hell of it dinner was marked with a trip there, so much so that it became a running joke amongst my friends (“Here again, Rach?!). When I heard that Yun Yan was set to close last year, I was duly devastated – yet my foodie tears soon turned into hollers of joy when I discovered that it would be re-opening nearer my neck of the woods in Causeway Bay’s Times Square. Huzzah!
Yun Yan has had a stylish new revamp to befit its new neighbourhood. Gone are the massive dining tables, Lazy Susan spinners and traditional Chinese restaurant grandeur; instead, the new venue feels modern, contemporary and breezy, with a bright spacious dining room, light wood and bamboo décor, colourful artwork and a funky tofu bar (think sushi counter) in the middle of the space.
The menu has been refined to focus on the restaurant’s specialty – authentic but modern Sichuan cuisine. And if your eyes are already beginning to water at the thought of all that chilli, don’t worry – there are plenty of options for all you non-spice fiends too!
We kicked off our meal with one of my favourite Yun Yan appetisers – translucent beef slices. Wafer-thin air-dried beef seasoned with Sichuan spices, these are an addictive combination of sticky, salty, sweet and spicy. I’ve been known to call them Sichuan crisps – if only they sold them in bags, I’d be happily tucking these away instead of my usual Walkers!
Another two of my most-loved dishes arrived in quick succession. The “Bang Bang Chicken” is a moreish combination of shredded chicken, sesame sauce and flat glass noodles that serves as a much-needed cooler amongst the hits of spice to come.
The chilled noodles with garlic pork belly were similarly appetite whetting, with a heady combination of seasonings that just keeps you coming back for one last bite.
One of Yun Yan’s new signatures is its innovative “Eight Flavour Tofu”, which arrives at your table with a box of seasonings to DIY your dish! The tofu, made fresh in-house daily, was beautifully silky and smooth; however, the flavour is very much of your creation and what with my heavy-handed approach to the spices, I probably won’t be giving Jamie Oliver a run for his money in the kitchen any time soon!
My all-time favourite dish at Yun Yan (and indeed, probably one of my favourites in the whole of Hong Kong) is the Mandarin fish slices with crispy soybean crumbs. The fish (already sliced and with no fiddly bones!) are perfectly cooked – soft, light and fresh – and then sprinkled in what fellow Sassy blogger Emma christened as “the mystery crumb”. I once brought my auntie to Yun Yan in the hope that she would taste the mystery crumb and reveal all its secrets, but after a quick chat with the chef, she pronounced it impossible to recreate at home! These soybeans have been dried, ground, fermented, seasoned, marinated, fried, left to marinate some more and probably had a spell cast on them by some Sichuan warlock… I’m just obsessed with them! Salty, crunchy and insanely addictive, they play perfectly against the tender fish pieces for a wonderful contrast of tastes and textures.
Elsewhere, I found Yun Yan’s famous poached beef in chilli broth a little one-note – this was just pure heat, and only the brave-hearted would want to take on this devil’s soup. The house-smoked duck was also a little dry, although the flavours were good.
Sichuan classics like sizzling king prawns, kung pao chicken, ma po tofu, hot and sour soup and dan dan mian are all very much in evidence and executed with panache; however, for something a bit different, try the earthy fried rice cakes with wild mushroom confit and pork slices – a more unusual but no less tasty dish that won’t register too crazy on your chilli thermometer.
After that feast, desserts are kept reassuringly light, with tofu crème brûlée and handmade ice-cream. I was really impressed with Yun Yan’s unique spin on gelato – the chilli chocolate had a great balance between rich cocoa and a sexy lingering chilli kick, whilst the Sichuan peppercorn neatly combined creamy vanilla and an interesting tingling twist. Another cute touch is that the drinks menu comes “chilli-coded” with bevvies to counteract the fiery effects of your meal; the yummy tofu smoothies are delicious enough to be desserts in themselves!
Dishes at Yun Yan cost $50-100 for appetisers and desserts, with mains around $100-300. Portions are less gigantic than at the old venue, meaning you no longer need to round up a banquet-sized quantity of people to get your Yun Yan fix, but are still generous enough to represent decent value for money in Times Square.
In a city where restaurants come and go in the blink of an eye, we all need our regular haunts – and Yun Yan is mine. It delivers quality, consistency and reliability every time, which is why it continues to be one of my favourite restaurants in town.
Yun Yan Shop 1001B, 10/F., Times Square, 1 Matheson Street, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
2375 0800 www.miradining.com/…