I recently sat down with Mr. Ace Lee, Sommelier of Celestial Court Chinese Restaurant and Oyster & Wine Bar, located in the Sheraton Hong Kong Hotel and Towers, to find out more about the wine program at the two restaurants. Ace showed me the composition of the wine list and pointed out the reasons why it is more orientated towards Old World traditional wines than New World wines. He described to me the differential arrangement of red wines and white wines on the list, the former by region and the latter by variety, and explained why he chose to set up the list in this manner. We also discussed the structure of the clientele at Celestial Court and some of the trends Ace has noticed in how they order their wine. Finally, Ace highlighted two of Celestial Court’s signature dishes, the Roasted Suckling Pig Stuffed with Barley, Black Truffles, Glutinous Rice and Wild Mushrooms (with which he recommended a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a French Semillon or an Amarone from Italy) as well as the Deep Fried Prawns with Garlic and Tea Leaves (with which he usually pairs an oaky Napa Valley Chardonnay).
Our interview follows:
My name is Ace Lee. I have worked here at the Sheraton as a Sommelier, managing all the wines at Celestial Court and at the Oyster Wine Bar in which we also have very high wine sales.
At Celestial Court, what type of cuisine do you offer?
Here we offer high-end Chinese food, many different styles of Chinese food, and we match it with red wine, white wine and champagne.
And what kind of interior would you say you have at this restaurant?
It’s contemporary Chinese, same as the cuisine. We have all sorts of traditional dishes but the chef also adds something new to the traditional ingredients. For example they add foi gras to the scallop and black truffle to the suckling pig.
So it’s a modernization of traditional classics? Please tell me a bit about the composition of the wine list. Is it mostly New or Old World wines?
Our wine list combines different regions and different types of wines. Traditional Old World wine countries are better represented than the New World style. We want the wine list to become more famous and traditional wines are better known than New Zealand, Australian and Chilean wines.
Are there one or two particular countries that are more prevalent on your list?
France. We also include wines from different regions of France, like Bordeaux or Burgundy or Alsace or Côtes du Rhône.
And is it also the region that is asked for the most?
Yes, they also know France more than other regions.
In terms of pairing between the food and the wine list, would you say the French labels complement the cuisine well?
When we designed the master wine list, we really wanted it to match the food in the different restaurants. So we chose very different types of wine. Champagne in Oyster Wine Bar is selling well because it’s the perfect match to oysters. We have different levels for these, Premier Cru, Grand Cru and even the basic levels. My job is to show them how to match the food to the wine, allowing them to enjoy more their experience.
And in Celestial Court, how does the wine pair to the modernized traditional Cantonese food you offer?
We have the suckling pig, which is famous, with black truffles and barley inside of the pig to make it more complex in flavor. This is quite a heavy food and we like to match it with a wine that is also a bit heavier, like a Châteauneuf-du-Pape or something with a Merlot base. I also think some French Semillon or Amarone from Italy would go very well. These will expose the flavor of the food more and that of the wine as well. We also have the Deep Fried Prawns with Garlic and Tea Leaves, which is very famous and which I would suggest with a Chardonnay, especially one from Napa Valley, because it is quite a heavy style Chardonnay. After being deep fried, the prawns have a very upfront taste to them and they need an oaky wine to match them. When we match a wine we want to expose the taste of the food more, make it juicier and sweeter. Even the wine will be smoother, more buttery, more creamy. It will create a chemical magic, a harmony.
I’ve also seen that your wine list includes tasting notes for each of the wines. Where do you get these?
The notes are from the website of the wine, formal and particular information. Sometimes we also follow the famous rating from Robert Parker or Wine Spectator, because their ratings are more accurate and allow customers to ensure that they will enjoy what they order.
And how is the wine list physically arranged, by variety or region?
We have two parts. Red wines by region because it is easier to follow. For white wines, we arrange them by grape variety so you can easily choose a Chardonnay, a Riesling or a Sauvignon Blanc.
I’ve also seen that the wine list indicates the varietals for each wine by percentages. Why do you choose to include this information on the list?
It helps customers know the content of what they’re getting. For the food we also show the ingredients, allowing the customers to know what it includes. This way there is no need to ask the sommelier all the time about the makeup of the wines, the information is already in front of them.
Please tell me a bit about the clientele at Celestial Court restaurant.
Our customer base has a wide range – tourists, businessmen, families, locals. We have different types of customers who enjoy our food. I think because the Sheraton has such a long history in Hong Kong, foreigners know the Sheraton and businessmen even from other countries will come back again and again to enjoy our food. The guests are pretty international. Many of the in-house guests come down for the Chinese food. There are a lot of local regulars, as well as Japanese expats in Hong Kong because they really love dim sum and it’s kind of famous in their circle. Mainland Chinese base is increasing as well.
And how would you describe how your clients order their wine? Have you noticed any trends in this?
They pay attention a lot to ordering a wine which matches their food, not like before when they chose the food without being concerned about this. Customers seem to know wines more now, due to the vast information available on the Internet. But customers do tend to still order big names more than anything else, so Lynch-Bages, Lascombes, Lafite, customers often choose from. However, from only ordering the big names, they start to switch to new choices as well.
Celestial Court Chinese Restaurant
Address: 20 Nathan Road, Kowloon, Hong Kong
Phone: (852) 2369 1111
Opening Hours: Monday – Saturday 11:30 AM – 3:00 PM; Sunday 10:30 AM – 3:00 PM; Daily 6:00 PM – 11:30 PM