Sunday, April 18, 2010

Steaming into Hong Kong

What does steaming into Hong Kong have to do with wine? For me it has everything to do with wine, because this was my first experience with it, and the beginning of my love affair with wine. We all remember our first time, don’t we? And we are all still thinking about wine, right? In my case it began with the shimmering lights of Hong Kong harbor in the winter of 1964. This was during my first sea cruise in the US Navy, and we were heading to Vietnam just as things began heating up there.

After being on station launching planes in the South China Sea, it was time to replenish the ship’s supplies and we headed to Hong Kong. To a sailor, pulling into port means liberty, which is such an appropriate word for R&R. This was the city I most wanted to see since my aircraft carrier, the USS Hancock had steamed out of San Francisco.

Once at anchor we received word of the areas we were not allowed go. Fortunately, that left most of Hong Kong open to us, and we were free to go ashore. I’d already gotten the skinny from a mate about the two must stops; the Parisian Grill and the Dragon boat bar atop the Mandarin Hotel, now the Mandarin Oriental. My rumbling stomach dictated the Parisian Grill would be the first stop.

So with two buddies we set out for a culinary experience par excellence. Inside the grill we found rich red wallpaper and drapes, white linen table cloths, uniformed waiters wearing white gloves - before Michael Jackson made them famous - and the muted sounds of an acoustically tuned room adding credence to its understated elegance. We were all looking at each other like, “How’d we get here?”

We scanned the room and didn’t pick out any other uniforms except a captain at a booth probably thinking, “What are they doing here?” All three of us worked hard at deciphering the menu, since the French was only explained in Mandarin or Cantonese. Sigh! The one that stood out for me was Steak Diane; at least it looked like something I could eat. I didn’t realize it was done flambé style. The waiter came by with a tray laden with all his utensils and incendiary devices and treated us to a pyrotechnical display. What a way to cook a steak, I thought.

I ordered wine because I’d always seen that done in movies and I was getting tired of Tiger beer. The bottle I selected through blind luck was Paul Bouchard Charmes Chambertin Burgundy. I remember the wine; I just can’t remember the year. The filet in its rich sauce and the wine created a harmonious marriage enhancing and accenting each other with every sip. I was thinking, if this was what wine tasted like I needed a lot more of it. But now I was out of Steak Diane so I motioned the waiter and told him to hit me again with that flambé steak thing. Did I say motion? I think wild gesticulation would be more appropriate.

In any case, I was sure I was making a favorable impression because all eyes were on me and that overworked flambé cart. At least they were all smiling. The second steak went down just as easily as the first. I enjoyed that so much I went back another evening and had the very same meal. No sense messing with success, I thought. This time we also gorged ourselves on a Baked Alaska about the size of a small turkey. How did we not gain weight then, huh?

When I got back stateside, I looked for the wine at one of those big San Francisco stuffy wine shops. When a saw the price tag I think my eyes bulged out far enough to impact the glass display. Yikes! So I decided to work at duplicating that magical moment in Hong Kong no matter how much research it would take, but for less money. Since then I’ve stayed on that quest, seeking out great wines at modest cost and the foods to go with them. Who’d have thought eating at a French restaurant in Hong Kong would set that all off? Salud!

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