A Michelin-starred tour of Hong Kong’s best restaurants
As Hong Kong approaches the 20th anniversary of the ending of British colonial rule on July 1, there are still plenty of contentious political issues regarding this booming financial centre’s tense “special relation” with its powerful neighbour. But for the visitor, Hong Kong remains the ultimate glamorous Asian destination for haute couture shopping, luxury hotels and, above all, gourmet restaurants. I was here to cover the unveiling of the first-ever Hong Kong Michelin Guide eight years ago, which firmly established it on the world’s gastronomic map, and decided this was the moment to go back and embark on a week-long foodie marathon, to see just how the fine-dining scene is developing. I arrived during the frantic Art Basel week, when movers and shakers from around the world fly in en masse – fully booking every five-star hotel in town – for a frenzy of avant-garde art buying and power dining in Hong Kong’s three-starred Michelin gastronomic temples. But these jet-set visitors don’t realise that eating out here has evolved into a lot more than expensive, exclusive restaurants bearing the name of celebrity chefs from around the world.
Yes, the triple stellar chefs offer an extravaganza of tasting menus that span sophisticated Cantonese cuisine, classic Italian and French, and a creative fusion of Asian and European flavours. But the Michelin Guide has carefully encouraged homegrown talent, too. Today there is also the possibility to visit a host of one-star diners, where the cooking and quality of local speciality dishes – from wonton noodles and dim sum to roast goose – is exquisite, while the prices are ridiculously affordable compared to what you would pay to eat in a Michelin establishment in France. There, and anywhere else in Europe, it would be heresy for a chef to be awarded the coveted first star if his locale did not boast starched linen, crystal glasses and waiters in dinner jackets. Here in Hong Kong, you may have to queue outside, sit at a Formica table and eat on plastic plates, but the food tastes delicious.
In order to cover neighbourhoods across Hong Kong island and mainland Kowloon, my starting point is Central district, Hong Kong’s version of Manhattan, beginning with chef Chan Yan-tak, whom I met when he became the first Chinese chef in the world to be awarded three Michelin stars at the unveiling of the first Guide here.
Chef Chan, who came out of retirement to create the perfect kitchen for preparing Chinese food, presides over the elegant Lung King Heen in the Four Seasons Hotel, with panoramic views over Hong Kong’s harbour. His classic Cantonese dishes are sophisticated and delicate, with subtle but diverse flavours magically blending together in dishes such as stir-fried minced pigeon wrapped in crispy lettuce; marinated jellyfish scented with sesame oil; and succulent sautéed lamb shin with crunchy lily bulbs, capsicum and fermented bean sauce. The dining room is buzzing, fully booked with a mix of businessmen and society ladies gossiping at lunch, most enjoying the eight-course seasonal tasting menu (1,980 Hong Kong dollars; Dh935).
The Four Seasons is part of the IFC Complex, and a short walk away in another tower, hidden away in a luxury shopping mall, is a one-starred Michelin gem: Lei Garden. This is also frenetic at midday: tables are crammed together and the service is brusque, determined to get diners in and out as quickly as possible. Serving as an example of the stark contrasts in Hong Kong’s dining scene, Lei Garden also dishes out top-class Cantonese fare, but for a very affordable budget. For two, I order an exquisite double-boiled fish bone soup with fragrant gastrodia orchid root; crispy roasted baby pigeon; and water spinach fried with preserved bean curd. The bill comes to a total of just HK$300 (Dh340).
Over the other side of Central lies the Landmark building, a holy grail for international gourmets with a couple of three-starred dining rooms: Joël Robuchon’s Atelier and Umberto Bombana’s 8½ Otto e Mezzo, plus the intriguing dual-starred Amber, presided over by Dutch chef Richard Ekkebus.
Robuchon’s restaurants are always run by his highly skilled team, but at Otto e Mezzo, diners can see Bombana up close. A huge hulking presence in his white chef’s jacket, forever prowling from the kitchen, where he has a brigade of 30, around the understated, minimalist dining room, Bombana meets and greets his faithful clients, patiently posing for selfies, but also keeps a watchful eye on the waiters and dishes. “We opened eight years ago,” he tells me, “and the biggest success is that we have never, ever had an empty table. This could not happen in any other city in the world. Right now, Hong Kong for me is even more exceptional than say London or Paris. People in Hong Kong are quite simply ready to spend money, and that allows me to buy the finest produce, which is crucial for gourmet cooking.” That is certainly true when dishes from his five-course tasting menu (HK$1,480; Dh700) start arriving: homemade tagliolini smothered with black truffle shavings; Brittany blue lobster with sea urchin; and juicy baby lamb from the French Pyrenees served with barley cooked in the rich meat jus. The chef eschews all hints of fusion, explaining: “My clients and myself want to enjoy my Italian identity, so I use very few local products, preferring the symbols of Italian cuisine – not soy sauce and chillies.”
Over at the equally plush Amber, chef Ekkebus follows a different philosophy. He claims to have tried using local produce, from vegetables to seafood. “But frankly, the only thing that is successfully growing here is real estate,” he jokes, “so we discovered a market in Fukuoka, south Japan. I order at night, and by midday everything is delivered in the restaurant. The result is that I have ended up cooking French cuisine with exceptional Japanese products, which has obviously produced some surprising dishes.” I have certainly never experienced complex creations such as his Hakata Bay oyster in plankton gel and organic kale; wild tuna belly tartare with turnip and dashi; and a langoustine tartare on a bed of poached bamboo pith and fricasseed Granny Smith apples. Ekkebus adds: “What is really interesting cooking for people in Hong Kong is that local diners are very sensitive and influenced by the mouthfeel of the dish, unlike Europe, so I am always guided by the five Asian senses: sweet, sour, bitter, hot and ‘umami’ – freshness.”
Outside the Landmark, there are glitzy boutiques everywhere, from Piaget and Tiffany to Louis Vuitton and Bulgari. But disappearing down a narrow side street plunges me back down into Hong Kong’s seething local scene. Crowds of people line up outside a seedy diner, Yat Lok (00852 2524 3882), which has to be the most unlikely hole-in-the-wall eatery to win a Michelin star. There is really only one thing that everyone comes here to eat, too: what is definitely the best goose I have ever tasted in my life, freshly roasted in huge ovens at the back of the restaurant. And a heaped plate of freshly chopped drumstick nestling on a bed of homemade noodles costs the grand total of HK$125 (Dh60).
From Central, I take what is still one of the most breathtaking and cheapest journeys in the world: chugging across Hong Kong harbour on the Star Ferry to Kowloon. This once-gritty neighbourhood is turning into a fashionable Brooklyn, where diners again have the choice between three-starred Michelin restaurant T’Ang Court, which serves up refined Cantonese dishes, as well as to-die-for dim sum at the cheap-and-cheerful solo-starred canteen Tim Ho Wan, which is one of the most reasonably priced Michelin-starred restaurants in the world.
While the setting and service at T’Ang Court are quite formal, chef Kwong Wai Kung, who started working in the kitchen when he was 14, is much more daring than most of his contemporaries in his interpretation of Cantonese cuisine, producing dishes with strong, complex flavours. These include: chilled shredded abalone with jellyfish; duckling and fresh fruits; steamed boneless chicken filled with shrimp paste then covered in lemon sauce; and a soup of beef cheek, turnip, dried dates and wolfberries. Kwong offers a six-course, one-person tasting menu (HK$1,280; Dh605), which is rare in Chinese restaurants, and this really was the most interesting Cantonese cooking I tasted in Hong Kong.
A couple of stops away on the subway, in the lively Mong Kok district, the scene is very different at Tim Ho Wan. Packed to bursting, an army of middle-aged waitresses in green T-shirts carry trays piled high with steaming dim sum dishes direct from the open kitchen to hungry diners. The brainchild of a former chef at Lung King Heen, this modest establishment aims to democratise gourmet cuisine by offering the same quality dim sum served in luxury hotels and restaurants at prices that everyone can afford. It is quite simply a great success, for those prepared for no-frills dining. Four of the signature shrimp dumplings cost HK$27 (Dh12), while the delicious transparent chiu chow vegetarian wontons, filled with crunchy peanuts, fried radish and plump mushrooms, cost only HK$14 (Dh7). Also, no one should miss a bowl of the wonderfully light congee rice porridge with chicken and preserved egg, priced at HK$18 (Dh8).
Back on Hong Kong island, I venture into the lively Wan Chai quarter, lined with bars and cafes, exciting street food and funky restaurants, as well as the last authentic outdoor market, the stalls of which teem out onto the pavement, filled with wriggling fish, exotic seafood, outdoor butchers, and raucous fruit and vegetable vendors. Hidden away in all this is Bo Innovation, run by the famous self-styled “demon chef” Alvin Leung, who, despite his dyed-blue punk haircut and bling-bling jewellery, deserves Michelin’s coveted three-star accolade as he stands out as the most original Chinese chef on the fine-dining scene. His restaurant only reopened late last year in new premises, and the funky colours, laid-back staff and lack of pretension – cutlery is self-service in a drawer underneath the table, dishes are brought on simple wooden trays, and napkins are replaced by disposable wet paper towels – make for a relaxed meal. All the better, as Leung proposes an awesome 14-course tasting menu (HK$2,500; Dh1,180) of his unique “X-Treme” cooking, a reverse fusion using European flavours and ingredients to influence Chinese cuisine. “I call both the decor and dishes of this new location the ‘Hong Kong Story’,” Leung recounts, “reflecting on how both Hong Kong and myself, as a chef, are coming to terms with the upcoming 20th anniversary of our supposed independence.”
The names of some dishes may be whimsical – Child’s Play, Baby Food, Fishing Village – but this is a truly modern Chinese dining experience. Scallops are served with a tart Shanghainese pickle sauce, playfully complemented by sugar snap peas and crispy woba; then seared foie gras is daringly accompanied by caramel ice cream and gingerbread; while melt-in-the mouth marbled beef, surrounded by black truffles, cauliflower and garlic chives, makes for a delicious soup as an aromatic consommé is theatrically poured from a copper teapot.
Foie gras ice cream
Walking down from Bo Innovation to busy Hennessy Street, I jump on an iconic “ding ding” tram and trundle down a couple of stops to Happy Valley, home of the Hong Kong racecourse and the unassuming Pang’s Kitchen (00852 2838 5462), which only stands out on an anonymous backstreet because of the mass of red Michelin stickers plastered on the window. I think Vivian Pang’s modest restaurant could claim to have the most challenging dish for the Guide’s demanding inspectors to taste, and I can’t resist the chance to try her snake soup, both delicate and tasty after boiling in mysterious herbs for six hours. A hearty bowl hardly breaks the bank at HK$168 (Dh80), followed by four giant deep-fried oysters (HK$160; Dh75) that almost explode in my mouth as I take a bite. The contrast between Pang’s and Bo are as extreme as Leung’s cooking – from the decor and the service to the price. But that is just what makes eating out in Hong Kong such a special and contradictory experience.