x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Hungry for Hong Kong, where stall food is second to none

In the latest in our series of culinary journeys, John Brunton gets to the heart of Hong Kong's food scene.

"The basis for all dining in Hong Kong begins on the street, where the stall food is second to none in Asia." John Brunton for The National

Hong Kong is a city where residents eat out virtually every day of the week, who rather than talk about politics, football or fashion, prefer to discuss their favourite restaurant or recipe. And there are an awful lot of restaurants to choose from - about 12,000 at the last count, which means you can pretty much eat what you want, where you want, 24 hours a day, from elegant gourmet temples presided over by world-famous celebrity chefs from France, Japan, Australia and North America, to busy street stalls and hole-in-the-wall eateries that have hardly changed in 100 years.

As Lau Kin Wai, the Hong Kong restaurateur and food critic, says to me during a delicious dim sum breakfast at the legendary Lin Heung Tea House (160 Wellington Street, Central; US$10 [Dh37] for lunch): "I think only in Hong Kong could you go out for dinner with a millionaire businessman, feast on a seven-course, gourmet Chinese meal in a luxurious restaurant and then, as you're going out, he steps into his limousine and asks, 'Shall we just stop off at my favourite street stall in Wan Chai for a bowl of fish ball noodles?'"

The basis for all dining in Hong Kong begins on the street, where the stall food is second to none in Asia. This is where local cooks learn the essentials of Chinese cuisine and all foreign chefs come for inspiration. My guide is none other then Danny Ip, Hong Kong's ultimate foodie expert, a bon vivant Mr Fixit who is sought out by every visiting gourmet journalist or TV crew, and was the secret source of invaluable insider advice when Michelin, the French gastronomic bible, launched its Hong Kong edition.

Danny proposes we jump on one of the ancient city trams, known nostalgically as "Ding Ding". First stop is Causeway Bay, by the Sogo department store on Hennessy Road, and we escape the frenetic hubub and disappear down a quiet side street, Jardine's Bazaar.

He leads me as far as Mak’s Noodle (44 Jardine’s Bazaar, Causeway Bay; $5 to $7 [Dh18 to Dh26] per dish),  where both local aficionados and international celebrity chefs, such as Anthony Bourdain, squeeze on to tiny stools for a bowl of its famed beef brisket soup.

“And we absolutely must head round the corner to Ho Hung Kee,” exclaims Danny, “so you can taste their unbelievable prawn wonton. Trust me, this is the best wonton in town and when I took the great French chef Joël Robuchon here, he agreed, too.”

Back on the tram, we are soon weaving between the soaring skyscrapers of Central district, the financial, fashion and fun capital of Hong Kong Island. We jump off by the surreal-looking moving escalators that take commuters to their apartments up in the chic Mid-Levels, and are hurled into the teeming crowds that pack Graham Street market, passing by cramped workshops where an artisan has been hand-making  rice noodles for 60 years, a third-generation family of soy sauce producers who still age their precious liquid in huge stone jars, and past multicoloured fish and snapping crabs theatrically displayed at pavement fishmongers.

I’m sure Denny is taking me to Yung Kee, whose famous roast goose persuaded the Michelin inspectors to award this elegant Chinese restaurant one of its coveted stars. Instead, we veer off on to a side street, with Denny insisting that Yung Kee is far too expensive, “and I can assure you that the incredible crispy roasted goose of the humble street diner, Yat Lok, is far, far better and only costs $5 for a delicious bowl with handmade noodles”.

Denny is so enthusiastic that eating out with him can be a dangerous occupation – he can take you to three different places for lunch on the same day – so I decide it’s time to head off and meet Lynn Grebstad, a Brit who stayed on after Hong Kong ceased to be a British colony in 1997.  Grebstad founded and owns her own PR company, Grebstad Hicks Communications, and is the glitzy public relations queen of Hong Kong’s fine-dining scene.

I’m heading for Kowloon, the mainland side of Hong Kong, crossing over Victoria Harbour on the Star Ferry, one of the world’s greatest ferry rides. Grebstad has reserved a table at Huton (1 Peking Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon; main dishes from $20 to $30 [Dh73 to Dh110]), a swish, contemporary Chinese dining room on the top floor of a skyscraper with breathtaking panoramic views. The dishes here succeed in being both exquisite-tasting and visually stunning, such as plump soft-shelled crabs with dozens of bright red Szechuan chilli peppers served in an ornate lacquer basket. Grebstad says the success of restaurants opened by the likes of Alain Ducasse, Pierre Gagnaire and Nobu Matsuhisa proves that Hong Kong is now firmly established as one of the world’s gourmet capitals, “and that is because they blend the magic of their own gastronomic cuisine with local products and cooking styles of Hong Kong”.

This is typified by the hottest table in town, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (the Landmark, 15 Queens Road, Central; dinner menu $75 [Dh275]; discovery menu $190 [Dh698]), where the chef with the most Michelin stars in the world offers diners the choice between a classic signature dish, creamy mashed potatoes topped with white truffle shavings, or a more exotic terrine of eel and foie gras caramelised with a sauce of Asian spices. But fusion is a ying-yang concept, too, and Grebstad recommends an exceptional Chinese chef who has created his own highly original cuisine. Alvin Leung is Hong Kong’s wildboy, known as the “demon chef” and a modern-day alchemist, and at Bo Innovation (2/F 60 Johnstone Road, Wan Chai; tasting menu $100 [Dh367]) he has created what he calls “X-treme Cuisine” – an explosive cocktail of Asian ingredients and French technique mixed with modish molecular gastronomy. Splash out on the 15-course chef’s menu and experience “fatty tuna belly, foie gras powder and dried rasberry”, “1,000-year egg with super sour lemon foam” and an irresistible sesame dumpling filled with melted chocolate instead of traditional red beans.

In between the budget dishes served at street stalls and the -sky-high cost of a tasting menu in the top restaurants, Hong Kong has another food world rarely discovered by visitors, known as private dining.

And the best meal I have ever had, in terms of fabulous food at a reasonable price, was at one of these secret addresses, the intriguingly named Yellow Door (6/F, 37 Cochrane Street, Central; $38 [Dh140]). This uniquely Hong Kong phenomenon is a word-of-mouth, or word-of-blog to be exact, trend where fashionable chefs and restaurateurs open up small private salons specialising in regional Chinese or hip fusion cuisine where diners are served a no-choice, one-sitting, prix-fixe tasting menu. Yellow Door is not easy to find, hidden away on the sixth floor of a dingy office block, but for adventurous gourmets it is a brilliant occasion to discover authentic Szechuan and Shanghainese home cooking, miraculously prepared in a shoebox kitchen by a wonderful lady, Wah Tse, or “big sister”, who has a host of family recipes like succulent chilli-braised oxtail and crispy deep-fried eel with a tangy sweet and sour sauce.

Yellow Door is owned by the genial Lau Chun, a star of the local -gourmet scene, who, apart from running two private dining venues, has his own jazz club as well as a “Chef’s Corner” programme on local television. His definition of private dining: “one, it must be the owner himself organising the cooking. Two, the venue has to be cosy, less than 30 people. Three, and most importantly, it must be like you’re going to a friend’s house for dinner. I would be wary of fashionable fusion private dining, run mainly by expat chefs, because for me fusion food is confusion food!”

Chun travels widely around mainland China, and admits that “when I find a dish I really like, well, basically I steal it, put it onto our menu, but adapt it for the Hong Kong market. Usually, my chef either adds new ingredients to a traditional method of cooking, or takes the simple, traditional elements of a recipe and cooks them in a modern way.”

All I can say is, after a phenomenal dinner of a staggering eight starters and eight main dishes, private dining is something that is bound to catch on in other cities around the world.

Direct flights with Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) from Abu Dhabi to Hong Kong cost from Dh2,355 return, including taxes.

The Spots

Lin Heung Tea House (160 Wellington Street, Central)

US$10 for lunch

Mak's Noodle (44 Jardine's Bazaar, Causeway Bay)

US$ 5-7 per dish

Ho Hung Kee (2 Sharp Street East, Causeway Bay)

US$ 5-7 per dish

Yat Lok (28 Stanley Street, Central)

US$ 5-7 per dish

Hutong (1 Peking Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon)

main dishes US$20-30

L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon (The Landmark, 15 Queens Road, Central)

Dinner Menu US$75, Discovery Menu US$190

Bo Innovation (2/F 60 Johnstone Road, Wan Chai) Tasting Menu US$100

Yellow Door (6/F, 37 Cochrane Street, Central) US$38