Hong Kong on a plate
Photography: PAT NOURSE
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best food? Check out Pat Nourse's picks for Hong
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Forget Tokyo, Godzilla: there's probably never been a better time to eat Hong Kong. Michelin has just published a guide to the city, only the second Asian guide rouge, with 22 starred restaurants. More excitingly still, wine prices here, the undoing of so many dining destinations in Asia, have been heading south since taxes on beer and wine were abolished in 2008. Hong Kong is cleaner than Bangkok, edgier and more fun than Singapore, cheaper than Japan and offers a degree of sophistication in both traditional and imported cuisines that mainland China just can't match. (Oh, and the shopping ain't bad, either.)
The city offers such a multiplicity of good eating at every level that it can be almost overwhelming in its appeal to restaurant addicts. Here, we've tried to give a picture of the very best across the board, whether it's from the Occident or the Orient, served on Limoges or Laminex. Our sole criterion: gustatory awesomeness. Dig in.
1. Siu mai, Luk Yu Teahouse
If there's a better way to start the day than dim sum, Hong Kong hasn't heard of it. There's no shortage of options, but for a sense of place Luk Yu is hard to beat. Give the severe doorman a nod and slide into one of the tiny timber booths. In days gone by, this was where the city's power was brokered. Tea is such a big deal here that many of the older regulars bring in leaves from their private supply, but there's an impressive range of aged pu-erh teas, among others, on the menu, should you neglect to BYO. Trolleys have no place on this floor; veteran waitresses walk the surprisingly specific selection of dumplings and the like around the room on trays slung from their shoulders like they're at a ball game. Stick with the basics, such as the pure pork siu mai dumplings, for a true taste of the classics. 24-26 Stanley St, Hong Kong, +852 2523 5464
2. Chicken and abalone roll with Yunnan ham, Man
If, sitting at the 25th floor, Man Wah isn't the highest dim sum spot in town, it's certainly the closest to the high life. Rather than the usual Canto-barn dimensions, it's an attractively manageable size, richly decked out with tables set with exquisite wares. The standards, whether the pristine prawn dumplings, the cloud-like barbecue pork buns or the soup dumplings blushed with red vinegar, are rendered with precision and lightness. The same clarity extends to thick shreds of abalone and pert asparagus spears steamed in a bundle with Yunnan ham. Here, you should look beyond custard tarts for your brunch dessert, if the subtle elegance of the double-boiled pear in a tea-like syrup made from aged tangerine peel is any guide. Level 25, Mandarin Oriental, 5 Connaught Rd, Central, Hong Kong, +852 2825 4003
3. Steamed pork dumplings with pork liver, Lin Heung Tea
An old-school dish from this most old-school of dim sum houses. This is, as one Hong Kong trencherman puts it, one of the few spit-and-sawdust joints left. For the record, there's no sawdust. And the story about the waitress sneezing her dentures onto the table and then slipping them back into her mouth with a smile is just a story. The floor staff here don't smile, for one thing. They're too busy directing traffic. Forget queueing: here you stalk around the room looking for someone nearly finished (or merely easily intimidated) and then stand over them until they yield their seat. The lighting is dazzlingly fluorescent, and the ritual washing of the chopsticks in the tea poured from enormous battle-scarred iron pots isn't just for show. The food is equally rough-hewn. Not slap-dash, mind, just chunky, as with the sizeable lobes of steamed liver laid over richly fatty meatballs. 160-164 Wellington St, Central, Hong Kong, +852 2544 4556
4. Xiao long bao, Bo Innovation
And now for something completely different. If the name doesn't do it, the mosaic portrait of the self-proclaimed "demon chef", Canadian-born Alvin Leung, showing off his tattoos might. The menu is very much in the contemporary telegram style, with an INGREDIENT named in capital letters followed by a series, of, comma-separated, nouns, many of which are "framed" with "quotation marks". But before you run screaming, give it a chance. The liquid nitrogen, foam and Thermomix action here is applied not to Caesar salads and paella but to the likes of dan dan noodles and har mee, and in this Bo is unusual. Amid all the energy expended over the meal's many small courses, some of the dishes come off about as convincing and well-conceived as the pseudo-punk look sported by the staff. But when it works, it really works, providing glimpses of another face of Chinese cuisine. Spherification has dated faster than any other culinary technique, yet in his "xiao long bao" Leung has found possibly the best and most appropriate use for it since El Bulli's olives. His soup dumplings are all soup and no dumpling, the liquid contained in a fine membrane that bursts on the palate. His take on congee has a more subtle brilliance, the classic rice porridge concentrated into a scant few spoonfuls enriched with caviar. Shop 13, Level 2, J Residence, 60 Johnston Rd, Wan Chai, Hong Kong, +852 2850 8371
5. Dan dan noodles, Wing Lai Yuen
And then there's dan dan noodles without the quotation marks. The Whampoa Gourmet Place is about as irony-free a zone as you can imagine, but there's a kind of mad genius in cramming branches of Hong Kong's finest vendors under one Kowloon roof. Make a beeline for the large and well-lit space that is Wing Lai Yuen. These guys have been making the peninsula's best peanut and pork broth since the '50s. Crucially, the wheat and egg-based noodles themselves have a distinct flavour, and their texture is springy rather than merely soft. Shop 102-105, Level 1, Whampoa Gourmet Place, Site 8, Whampoa Garden, Hunghom, Kowloon, +852 3152 2162
6. Boiling congee with grass carp, Sang Kee Congee
It's an hour before lunch gets underway and there's already a queue out the door. The hordes aren't here for the décor, which seems to be designed for ease of hosing rather than comfort; they're here because Sang Kee has a reputation for being one of the best congee places in town. And it's true: these guys raise the humble rice porridge to an art. The version with grass carp is a popular favourite. It's a dish that's especially interesting when you throw some pork offal into the mix, the textures of tripe and liver playing off the white-fleshed fish. If you're a real texture-fiend, though, you'll want to try the congee topped with fish float bladders, beef and pork balls. Pass the vinegar. 7-9 Burd St, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong, +852 2541 1099
7. Sautéed garoupa fillet with choy sum, Tim's
It's touched with ginger, but the flavour of the hugely meaty fish is dominant, clear and pure. It's just one of the frankly extraordinary dishes served in this surprisingly ordinary room. The casual observer might dismiss Tim's Kitchen for its plain interior. But look a little closer and you'll see that the table in the corner is eating the best crisp-skinned fried chicken in town, made with birds sourced from the same farm for decades. They're drinking Lafite and Lake's Folly with their bowls of glistening fish maw in oyster sauce with goose webs. Tim's specialises in a classical kind of Cantonese cooking almost lost even here in Hong Kong, epitomised by seldom-seen dishes such as stewed pomelo pith, almost melon-like in its texture, all trace of citrus bitterness removed over the course of several days' cooking, bathed in a glossy sauce speckled with prawn eggs. They're a revelation, and should push this otherwise humble establishment to the top of any serious diner's must-visit list. 93 Jervois St, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong, +852 2543 5919
8. Steamed goose liver and star garoupa fillet, Lung
Welcome to Hong Kong's only Michelin three-star, and the only Chinese restaurant to hold the title. Whether Lung King Heen is of the class of the great French three-stars is open to debate, but the hotel-luxe room is polished, the bay views are spectacular, and there's no question this is Cantonese cooking of a very high order. Chef Chan Yan Tak's calling card of melting steamed foie gras played off against the firmness of an outstanding piece of fish is a dish to savour in the memory long after the reality has slid past the palate. Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong, Level 4, 8 Finance St,Central, Hong Kong, +852 3196 8880
9. Pea soup, L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon
Like all Robuchon's Ateliers, this restaurant leaves something to be desired in terms of the décor (are vases filled with dried pasta a good idea anywhere, ever?). But the food is, in a word, flawless. You can't go wrong ordering from a kitchen full of culinary ninjas who get everything right, but don't miss the tiny burger with a tranche of foie gras the same size as the beef patty, or the langoustine en papillote, with its single basil leaf trapped between the shellfish and its crisp wrapper, resembling nothing so much as god's own spring roll. Or the pea soup studded with tiny lardons and topped with an onion foam, which makes a marvel out of tasting simply, thoroughly and emphatically of green peas. There's also the Salon de Thé, a café which serves macarons to rival Hermé's and grapefruit Danishes of remarkable poise. Shop 401, Level 4, The Landmark, 15 Queen's Rd, Central, Hong Kong, +852 2166 9000
10. Confit egg, lomo Ibérico, black truffle,
It's difficult to go wrong with cured pork products and eggs. Harder still when the egg is slow-cooked till it's just-set all over and the pork in question is the same used to make the finest jamón. Throw in some black truffles, croûtons and cubes of fine oxtail jelly, and all that remains is to pour the 2001 Domaine Dujac Clos St Denis Grand Cru. A tiny, beautiful modern European restaurant, Cépage is a new venture from the people behind Les Amis, the Singapore restaurant with that nation's finest cellar. They've set out to blow every other wine list in town away, and with gun sommelier Randy See on board, and 2100 labels in separate climate-controlled cellars for reds and whites, they're there. Chef Thomas Mayr can play hard-ball too, busting out the likes of a super-beefy char-grilled Blackmore wagyu sirloin with beer-battered onion rings when the situation (or the Pomerol) demands it. 23 Wing Fung St, Wan Chai, Hong Kong, +852 2861 3130
11. "9 Conduit Street", Pierre
And so to dessert. For many pundits, Pierre, the soigné Hong Kong outpost of Pierre Gagnaire's empire atop the Mandarin Oriental hotel, is the truest of the Asian branches set up by Paris's big guns. Certainly, all the big man's trademarks are here: the radical positioning of ingredients, not to mention the multiplicity of plates in every course. "L'Agneau", for instance, sees a flotilla of monogrammed dishes placed before the diner, a roast saddle of lamb from Aveyron here, a shish-kebab there, and myriad other bits and bobs. But perhaps the most interesting (and international) expression of Gagnaire's methodical madness is "9 Conduit Street". Named for the address of Sketch, his loopy London restaurant, it's a tall glass of green goodness that combines parsley, coriander, rocket, cucumber and melon bound in a fluffy pistachio mousseline in what must be the world's first salad dessert. Twisted, certainly, but also spoon-lickingly wonderful. Level 25, Mandarin Oriental, 5 Connaught Rd, Central, Hong Kong, +852 2825 4001
12. Roast goose, Yung Kee
The geese are plump, but not obese, as one Hong Kong gourmand puts it. Around 400 birds are sold here every day, charcoal-roasted until the fat is rendered and the skin is thin and crisp. They're the most famous dish at Hong Kong's most famous restaurant. Despite the spectacular Sino-kitsch of the fish pond stocked with statues of geese downstairs and the writhing gold dragons with light-up eyes curled around pillars on the first floor, this is a well-oiled machine. It's run with military coordination rather than heartfelt tableside manner, of course, but the goose, presented chopped on a bed of peanuts like classic Chinese barbecue, has burnished skin and juicy flesh with a deep, almost winey flavour. Is it Hong Kong's greatest restaurant? Does it do the best goose in town? Maybe not, but it's one of those boxes you have to tick, and it's far from a chore. Besides, if you think ahead, you can order the Supreme Tureen of Treasures from the Seven Seas, one of the key contenders for Most Excellent and Cantolicious Hong Kong Dish Name Ever, along with Hundred Flowers Chicken and Tiny Money Chicken. 32-40 Wellington St, Central, Hong Kong, +852 2522 1624
THE FINE PRINT
Cathay Pacific operates more than 70 direct flights each week between Australian mainland capitals and Hong Kong.
Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong
With its superb location in the heart of the city overlooking Victoria Harbour, the luxurious Mandarin Oriental is regarded as an icon in the city. Check out the spa plus the extensive dining options in 10 restaurants and bars, including Pierre Gagnaire's Michelin-starred restaurant. Rooms from $450. 5 Connaught Rd, Central, Hong Kong, 1800 123 693, +852 2522 0111
Hong Kong Wine and Dine Festival
Part of Hong Kong's Food and Wine Year, the inaugural festival, from 30 October to 1 November, will feature food and wine events and entertainment throughout the city.
Pat Nourse visited Hong Kong with the aid of the Hong Kong Tourism Board.