Tsim Chai Kee
FIRST COURSE: LEAN-MEAT CONGEE WITH CENTURY EGGS, SHRIMP-WONTON NOODLE SOUP
The first time Jamie Bissonnette says, "I'm in fucking heaven right now," it's Monday morning, and he is sitting at the Law Fu Kee noodle shop on Queen's Road in Central. (This is not the last time he will say this; it'll slip out as a steaming plate of clams in black-bean sauce is plunked down in front of him, and while he digs around in the shell of a sea snail before holding the meaty muscle aloft.) The clack-clacking of kitchen shears rises above the quiet din of people scraping their bowls, and an orange restaurant cat stands guard at the street entrance, eyes half-mast. Our neatly coiffed tour guide, Fred Cheung, has led us here for lunch; now he returns, juggling bowls of lean meat (pig liver, mostly) and century-egg congee, plus a plate of quartered century eggs — the yolks ashy gray and dark, the whites the color of deeply steeped tea (a result of preserving them in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, quicklime, and rice hulls) — complete with a shock of hot-pink pickled ginger on the side.
We drape a few shavings of ginger over the eggs ceremoniously and stuff the whole thing into our mouths. It's creamy and smoky and hits the back of our taste buds with notes like black tea, closely followed by the cleansing, spicy sucker punch of ginger.
Afterward, we take our time strolling through the Graham Street wet market. The stalls smell of seawater and things fried and fermented. There are big boxes of dried hibiscus, eggplants the size of tennis balls, bitter melons with deep grooves, a stall of coral-pink and Meyer-lemon-yellow fish, and another cat snoozing in an empty Oregon blueberries box.
Jamie ducks into Tsim Chai Kee for an unscheduled shrimp-wonton noodle stop. Inside, old men industriously slurp down an early lunch, most of them alone, poking at their noodles and broth contemplatively. Fred pours the first round of tea, and bowls piled with noodles and dumplings arrive shortly after.
The pale-pink shrimp meat is soft and crunchy at the same time, packed into the wonton so tightly you can't tell where one shrimp ends and the next begins. We're all mildly terrible with chopsticks (Jamie keeps up; I don't), but no one notices when one of us drops a slippery steamed dumpling or a noodle on the table. "Remind me to buy a pocket knife so we can cut these," Jamie says, hoisting a curly mass of dripping ramen aloft.
"I don't know what happened, or how I fell into cooking," he tells me, before saying something I've heard him say a hundred times before. "I'm not a chef. Chefs are masters. I am a cook. I have the title 'chef,' and to me, the best thing I can do is be a teacher to my fellow cooks and friends."
Later, we drift down the street in a haze. "The new dream is Toro Hong Kong," Jamie says, half to himself, half to me. "That's it! Toro Hong Kong. I have to live here." Toro New York, his latest project with Ken Oringer, has yet to open its doors, but I have no trouble imagining a Washington Street tapas transplant right where we're standing.