A luxurious omakase dinner at Maple Palace
Dining at Maple Palace has always been a satisfying experience. The elegant 6-course omakase dinner celebrating my 54th birthday was such a delightful encounter. Lavished with priced ingredients, the flavours of the scrumptious feast were top-notch!
"Omakase" is a short term in Japanese used for "omakase shimasu" which means "I will leave it to you (chef)". It gives creative freedom to the chef to conjure up an unforgettable culinary experience.
The well-crafted omakase menu presenting an unforgettable dining experience that evening was curated by the owner of Maple Palace himself, Mr Loy Tan. Having honed his skills through hands-on experience since 14, his passion for the culinary arts has taken him all over the world. I believe that only through experience can one truly breathe new life into traditional recipes. Mr Tan has definitely elevated the standard of Chinese cuisine in Penang. Artistic presentation and superior quality cuisine have won him the hearts of many in Penang.
The first course had a trio of offerings – a chilled nine-hole abalone, a battered Japanese oyster and slices of scallops on dragon chives.
Abalone is a highly prized culinary delicacy, well known as one of the eight treasures in Chinese cuisine. There are various species of abalone and the first dish offered was the nine-hole variety. Served chilled in its shell over strips of jellyfish, it was placed on a bed of crushed ice. Slicing the tasty indulgence thinly, I enjoyed the smooth texture of the abalone with the crunchy jellyfish, seasoned with aromatic sesame seed oil. The rich, sweet and buttery abalone flesh had a pleasant umami flavour.
The first time I savoured a nine-hole abalone was in South Korea, served in a steamed boat. If it had been over-cooked, the texture would have been disastrously chewy. However, the experienced chef here had pre-determined its doneness and savouring it chilled, its natural flavours preserved was an eye-opener. Having tried it both ways, I feel that the latter is many times over more tasty.
Also served in its own shell was a crispy golden battered giant oyster, encasing its soft creamy goodness within. The oyster, imported fresh from the waters of Japan, was topped with black caviar. I love oysters and would often wolf down a fresh one in a mouthful. However, at this size, it would have been madness to attempt gobbling it up in just one bite. On the contrary, I relished this exquisite offering slowly, savouring every mouthful with glee. Thank heavens as the juicy content was piping hot! The saltiness of the caviar successfully accentuated the taste of the ocean, drawing out the sweetness of the oyster.
The scallop slices on crunchy dragon chives were lovely as well.
The next course was a heart-warming bowl of chicken soup, the most luxurious dish of the evening. This was no ordinary chicken soup! The chicken stock took almost 10 hours to prepare; it was then doubled-boiled with ingredients for about three more hours. This was necessary to assure that the flavours of the hook wings, conch meat, sea cucumber, scallops and black morels were infused. The phenomenal amount of care and time in preparing the soup resulted in a sublime bowl of heavenly goodness.
The black morels in the soup caught my attention. Also known as morchella, some chefs would refer to a black morel as the "sacred mushroom". It has a stem and a conical body that is covered with pits and ridges like a honeycomb. I had two pieces in my bowl, enriching the soup with their earthy, woodsy and nutty flavours.
When I vet the proposed menu the day before the dinner, the only thing I requested for a change in was the dessert. I wanted to end the meal on a lighter note.
A term that I had initially missed (and did not know) had been "hook wings". In actuality, a hook wings is a caudal fin of the shark. It was good to discover that today, golden hook wings can be obtained from environmentally friendly and sustainable sources of small blue sharks. In the soup, they were not in little strands but rather whole pieces. I have removed shark's fin from my diet for ages and it was a rare treat for me that day.
Another rare treat that evening was the braised goose web in abalone sauce. Like its popular counterpart the chicken foot, this web is also a delicacy in Chinese cuisine. The braised web was served with a 3-head abalone, pan-seared foir gras, a shitake mushroom and some broccoli.
Do you know the difference between a 3-head and a 10-head abalone? Well, the number correlates with the size of the abalone (number of heads per catty). For example, the term “3-head" refers to three pieces of 200g abalone in a catty (600g). Hence, the larger the number, the smaller the size of the abalone.
The braised goose web was tender, falling off the bone easily without much effort. It was well-marinated sans any gamy hint. The gelatinous texture of the skin and web was smooth and delicious. The succulent taste and velvety texture of the Australian abalone was truly marvellous especially when coupled with the foir gras in every bite. I sliced the abalone thinly and took my time to savour this enticing dish.
Abalones have lived along coast waters for millions of years. Their fossilised shells have been found in sediments approximately 100 million years old.
In Chinese cooking since ancient times, the much sought-after shellfish has often been served at banquets and festive occasions. Besides its taste and texture, the name itself in Cantonese says it all – "bao yu" sounding like “guaranteed abundance”. This resonated with me as I felt sincerely blessed, partaking in a feast fit for an emperor, shared with my family.
The next course was a fiery Sichuan scallop offering, armed with bird's eye chillies and the popular numbing effect of Sichuan peppercorns. It definitely perked up all my senses and set them ablaze. The stark contrast of the "heat" against the fresh, sweet succulent Hokkaido scallop was masterfully played out. A little vermicelli accompanied the dish.
How big was the scallop? Well, its shell filled the entire dinner plate, the biggest I have had thus far. When it comes to scallops, the freshness and size say it all. I am impressed that in one sitting, I had the opportunity to sample ingredients from far flung countries.
The humongous freshwater prawn in the fifth course was imported from India. Two to three prawns would make up a kilogramme. Imagine the size of the prawns!
To make dining hassle-free, the flesh was conveniently deshelled. The dish was served with hand-drawn noodles and topped with fish maw. The freshness of the prawns took centre stage, making this was another oceanic delight with a winning combination of flavours and textures.
We concluded the omakase adventure with a chilled dessert. A huge Fuji apple was hollowed out to serve as a bowl, perfuming the peach gum dessert with osmanthus. It was lightly sweetened with honey rock sugar.
Indeed, this extended experience had been a sweet and memorable culinary feast like no other. I was bowled over by every course! Another new year has begun with a fabulous beginning, opening a chapter to great and endless possibilities.
The welcoming and attentive service at Maple Palace made dining a pleasure. With such fine-quality offerings and good service, it is no wonder that Maple Palace is popular. Call to make reservations to secure a booking especially during weekends and the Chinese New Year season. Reservations have to be made in advance for omakase sets and be assured that Mr Tan will craft a menu according to your budget.
I will definitely return for more dining escapades. Maybe this time, I will seek Mr Tan's culinary prowess to design a menu spanning the four major cuisines or cooking styles in China – Lu, Chuan, Yue and Su cuisines.
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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3 January 2022
Maple Palace Restaurant
47 Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, 10050 Penang
T: +604 227 9690
Lunch: 12:00noon – 2:30pm, Dinner: 6:00pm – 10:00pm