Hoong Tho restaurant was one of the earliest restaurants in Ipoh that I reviewed in March 2009 when I first began writing this food column and also one with the longest heritage surpassed only by Hung Kee in Cowan Street.
Imagine my surprise when accepting Dato’ Daniel Tay’s invitation for dinner at Hoong Tho when I discovered its been three and a half years since my last visit. And many new developments have taken place at this ‘Loh Chiew Pai’ meaning ‘old brand name’ since that time.
Since taking over from his father in 2010, Andy Onn has given this venerable establishment a facelift and upgraded the whole place. Re-opened since April this year, new toilets have made this restaurant a possible venue for long, lingering dinners with friends where before, one would eat and run! While still a fan-cooled outlet, one giant air-cooler on the ceiling helps to keep the hot humid temperatures at bay.
And concomitant with the upgrading of the physical premises, the menu too has undergone a facelift. While the traditional dishes for which Hoong Tho is famous – like their Lenggong Fried noodles, their caul-wrapped spring rolls, their Phoenix balls (minced pork, water chestnuts, wrapped around a salted egg yolk), their Wat Dan (which means silky smooth egg) style of noodles with the inimitable sauce, thickened with cornstarch and egg white – are still on the menu, Chef Andy has creatively used Hoong Tho’s traditional recipes and elevated some to culinary heights of Cantonese fine dining.
The night of Dato’ Daniel’s dinner, thanks to Eddie Foo, Ipoh’s antiques expert, the menu was pre-ordered (recommended) and presented one dish at a time. Our first dish was a huge tureen of their steamed chicken soup, prepared according to the ancient Hoong Tho recipe passed down through the generations. This was clear and robust at the same time, the ‘umami’ flavours contributed by not only the chicken but the black dried shitake mushrooms, the dried scallops, the dried octopus and various other special ingredients seasoned with a piece of ginger. Although pricey at RM100, the tureen was enough for double helpings for 10 people.
This was followed by a ‘Wat Dan’ fish, a whole pomfret, meat sliced; the bones cut in pieces, battered, and fried to a crunchy crispiness; over flat rice noodles and topped with their famous ‘Wat Dan’ sauce. This is an example of the earlier mentioned accolade of elevating basic recipes to culinary heights, where the pomfret was ocean fresh, the meat firm yet tender, the bones lending texture and crunch in juxtaposition to the soft noodles and the silky smooth sauce, fluidly binding all the ingredients into one delectable taste treat. Pomfret being my favourite fish, I found myself in seventh heaven. Seasonal price.
Next to arrive was what looked like a deboned roast chicken, flattened on the plate, with a golden crisp skin. On first bite I discovered that appearances can be deceiving as what I was tasting was minced chicken meat combined with ‘Saito’ or Ikan Belida fish paste, stuffed into the chicken skin and roasted to a golden brown. The contrast of the springy meat ‘farcie’ against the crispiness of the skin topping made for an interesting mouth feel. A lot of preparation work for the Chef but well worth the effort for diners and hence the price of RM50 for the dish.
Next on the table was the steamed ‘Saito’ or Ikan Belida fish belly, steamed with Tao Cheo, (fermented bean paste), chilli and garlic. The fish was melt-in-mouth fresh and steamed to perfection. Because the fish is seasonal, it is advisable to order and check for availability.
More fish followed in the form of the fried fish paste wonton, a specialty of Hoong Tho and always available. Again this fish paste is homemade from Saito fish, wrapped in wonton skin and deep fried to a crispy crunchiness. RM1.20 each with minimum order of 4 pieces.
Of course no dinner ends without something to sweeten the palate and we opted to taste the specialty Cempedak cake, handmade fresh daily by Andy’s sister and is always available for takeaway from the shopfront at RM11 per cake. This turned out to be deliciously moist, oozing with fresh Cempedak, the smaller and with a more pungent aroma than its cousin, the Nangka or Jackfruit. We topped this up with their famous custard, smooth and creamy and not overly sweet, at RM2.50 each.