Rating: ★★★★☆

Address: G/F, 25 North Street, Western District 西環北街25號地下

Telephone: 2819 6190

http://www.openrice.com/english/restaurant/sr2.htm?shopid=39874

The Western District is a distinctive and historical part of Hong Kong, home to many delightful neighbourhood eateries that can serve a scrumptious meal at a fraction of the price of restaurants in Central.

I have been craving claypot rice for some time, and a friend recommended Seung Hei (嚐囍煲仔小菜) in the Western District (this restaurant doesn’t have an English name). It is opened by a chef who used to work at 坤記煲仔小菜 (pronounced “Kwan Kee”), a famous, long-standing claypot rice restaurant in Sheung Wan. The waiters do not speak any English, and the menu is completely in Chinese – it is truly a place for a local dining experience!

Claypot rice is a pot of rice covered with different meats, which is traditionally cooked in an open-fire stove. The claypot keeps the rice hot, and the cooking process allows the rice to absorb the juices from the meat. It is particularly popular in winter, as the claypot rice can keep you full and satisfied; I personally find the experience comparable to having cheese fondue in winter!

Seung Hei takes reservations, but having a reservation may not necessarily mean much in practice: it may give you propriority over the other people waiting for a table, or it may not. Lots of families who live in the area are regulars at Seung Hei, and what I love the most about the restaurant is that the food is MSG-free. Even though the service was forgetful and unattentive at times and the restaurant was noisy and a bit chaotic,  the food tasted excellent and the prices were incredibly cheap – we were surprised that the bill for our huge meal was only at $80 per head!

(1) The first dish that arrived was the salt and pepper deep fried fish (椒鹽九肚魚) ($55). The seasoning was spot-on, and the batter over the fish was light and scrumptious. Underneath the crunchy surface, the fish was moist and beautifully tender.

(2) Our shrimps with scrambled eggs (蝦仁炒滑蛋) ($58) followed. The eggs were fried to a fantastic golden brown colour, and the seasoning was precise – it was bold but not overwhelming. The eggs could have been more runny and the shrimps had not been deveined properly, but it was moreish nevertheless.

(3) The deep fried fish in sweet corn sauce (粟米班塊) ($52) is a very common home-cooked dish in Hong Kong. The fish had an appealingly crispy batter, which was then softened as it soaked up the sweet corn sauce. It was a homely and satisfying dish.

(4) The claypot rice may take up to half an hour to arrive as it has to be freshly made over a fire stove, so you should order in advance! The star of the night was the white eel and pork ribs claypot rice (白鱔排骨飯) ($55), which was recommended to us by the waiters. The aroma of the black bean paste was enticing, and a generous sprinkling of chives added refreshing flavours to it. The white eel had a magnificent taste, the pork ribs were smooth and fatty; the best thing was the rice itself – soft and piping hot (thanks to the claypot), the rice has absorbed the fragrance and flavours from the meats on top, and it was truly decadent. A lot of people love eating the burnt crispy rice which lines the clay pot, which is crunchy and addictive. However, our crispy rice was a bit too burnt.

(5) At this no-frills neighbourhood restaurant, we did not have high hopes for the service. However, at some point of our meal we were almost getting heart attacks. A waitress came by our table to ask if we had ordered any claypot rice, and said that she just wanted to make sure she didn’t miss our order. Our worries lessened when the white eel claypot rice the sliced pork and egg claypot rice (窩蛋肉片飯) ($50) arrived, but we were still missing one claypot rice and were told a few times that “it will arrive soon”. After 45 minutes, we were finally told that they had missed our older. Ordering a new one would take another half an hour, so we decided not to wait for it.

The sliced pork and egg claypot rice was tasty, as it was not that hot by the time it was served. The taste of the pork, eggs and rice was beautiful, and we also asked for an extra egg – it tasted absolutely egg-cellent!

(6)  Next was a pot of marinated chicken with mushrooms (啫啫滑雞煲) ($52), and the marinade, which was thick and mildly sweet, was fantastic. The chicken and the mushrooms were packed with flavours and I particularly adored the smoothness of the Chinese mushrooms.

(7) The guys ordered a pot of beef brisket in curry sauce (咖喱牛腩煲)($58). The Cantonese-style yellow curry packed a punch. The beef brisket was not cooked long enough so it was too tough and was difficult to tear apart, but the beef tendons were wonderfully smooth and soft.

(8) Lastly, we had some vegetables in broth (上湯豆苗)($52). The vegetables were cooked for just the right amount of time and were still green and crisp. I didn’t really like the addition of the canned mushrooms as they were soft and limp, but they did not distract from the dish too much.

Seung Hei is a down-to-earth eatery which serves hearty and delicious food. We were not thrilled about the almost non-existent service while we were there, but in hindsight, we appreciate how the staff knew many of the customers by name and treated them like friends, as this is what a neighbourhood restaurant should be like – rustic, nonfussy and friendly.