In a city famous for its food, it's hard to know where to dig in. Anya von Bremzen maps out the ultimate guide

April 23, 2009

Let Shanghai have its buzz and Singapore its rich mix of ethnic cuisines. The sophistication of the Cantonese palate, the islanders' obsession with tradition and quality, and the boom in restaurants specializing in dishes from across China—not to mention the East-West fusion at top hotel kitchens—assures that Hong Kong still puts on a feast like no other city. From dim sum trolleys to tea tutorials, from hot lounges to haute restaurants, from Chinese classics to private clubs, here are 28 spots worth sharpening your chopsticks for. for.

HOT TABLES Hidden on the 12th floor of a shopping tower in the frenetic Times Square district, Water Margin (Food Forum, Shop 1205; 852/3102-0088; dinner for two $64) takes Hong Kong dining into the future by reinventing the past. Artfully dressed-down hipsters gather here to eat in the style of their grandparents—surrounded by latticework screens, teahouse furniture, and burnished-wood fixtures transplanted from the Shanxi province. Waiters in stylishly monastic, rough-hewn brown tunics parade with earthenware crocks of pan-Northern specialties, like chilled clams marinated in rose wine and tingling with garlic and chiles, or stir-fried prawns suffused with the irresistibly smoky aroma of oolong tea leaves. The ribbons of green watermelon skin licked with sesame oil should be labeled "dangerously addictive."

Although Kee (32 Wellington St., Sixth Floor; 852/2810-9000; dinner for two $103) advertises itself as a private dining club, the path to its discreet entrance is well-trodden by Sergio Rossi stilettos (the concierge at any good hotel can get you in). Worlds apart from the neon-lit Yung Kee Restaurant on the street level, this serene two-story space is the work of a Viennese stage designer who has conjured a 21st-century collectors' den, with hidden salons filled with paintings, rugs, and eclectic objets. The kitchen here has a split personality: at dinnertime, the cognoscenti preen over lobster risotto made by an Italian chef. They return at lunch for an authentic Cantonese menu of steamed eggplant topped with a delicate mince of preserved fish and pork, weightless sticky-rice balls, and translucent herb dumplings that can be polished off by the dozen.

CANTONESE CLASSICS All the refinement and technical brio of haute-Cantonese cooking is on display at Victoria City Seafood Restaurant (Sun Hung Kai Centre, Second Floor, 30 Harbour Rd., Wanchai; 852/2827-9938; dinner for two $103), where one gladly overlooks cruel lighting and garish carpets for the delicious Chinese ham flash-fried with chile oil and complex, smoky XO sauce. Brittle as spun sugar, the skin on the roasted chicken is a sensational contrast to the feathery steamed bun beneath. A two-pound crab with vanilla-sweet flesh luxuriates in a decadent sauce that's equal measures chicken fat, rice wine, double-strength broth, and egg yolks. The dim sum at lunch is just as good. Meanwhile, Yung Kee Restaurant (32-40 Wellington St.; 852/2522-1624; dinner for two $64) lures diners with the Cantonese equivalent of the brawnyfare one associates with a weathered French bistro. Beef brisket in clear broth has the oomph of a pot-au-feu; pig-trotter roulades arrive garnished with Chinese mustard and crunchy jellyfish slivers. At this 61-year-old institution, young geese are transformed into slices of tender meat and rich, crumbly sausages that would make a charcuterie junkie weep with joy.

REGIONAL FLAVORS The greatest gastronomic effect of the handover was a boom in restaurants that introduced Hong Kongers to the nuances of contemporary Sichuan, Hunan, and Shanghainese cuisines. Soulful star anise-scented Shanghainese braises get a makeover at Faye's Nouvelle Chinois Restaurant (Level 3, Man Yee Arcade, 60-68 Des Voeux Rd., Central; 852/2259-9393; lunch for two $30), an elegant outpost of the Shanghai-based restaurant empire. The thin bean-curd sheets cut into fettuccine-like strands and tossed with broad beans and preserved greens are fantastic. Ditto the restaurant's famous roast pork: a glistening square of plush belly meat served on a steamed bun.

Several regional styles flourish under one roof at Whampoa Gourmet Place (Site 8, Hunghom; 852/2128-7440), a new eating mall in a high-rise residential enclave in Kowloon. Sichuan-style food is authentically spicy at the populist Wing Lai Yuen (First Floor, Whampoa Garden; 852/2320-6430; lunch for two $10), with tongue-searing chicken with chiles and wonderful cold pork slices drenched in an aromatic soy-based sauce. The iconic Sichuanese don don mian (sesame noodles) are so coveted here that servings are rationed: one per customer. Upstairs at Din Tai Fung (Third Floor; 852/2330-4886; dinner for two $26), I had rustic pork dumplings, sweet stir-fried pea shoots, and a terrific salad of Taiwanese tofu, seaweed, and glass noodles. On my way out I spotted some unidentifiable meat dangling from hooks above another shop counter. "Try our braised bull's penis," the shopkeeper implored. Another time, perhaps.

HOTEL RESTAURANTS The Peninsula is famous for its Starck-designed, 28th-floor restaurant Felix; its tea tutorials; and the chef's table at Gaddi. But the Cantonese lunch of cinnamon-scented roasted squab and bracing snake soup at Spring Moon (Salisbury Rd.; 852/2315-3160; lunch for two $60) is unforgettable. Across the harbor, don't miss dim sum with a view at Man Wah (Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong, 5 Connaught Rd.; 852/2522-0111; lunch for two $40).

If variety is what you're after, head to Café TOO (Island Shangri-La, Pacific Place, Supreme Court Rd.; 852/2820-8571; lunch buffet $30 per person), where the buffet takes an evolutionary leap with endless brushed-steel stations hawking noodle soups, tandoori breads, sushi, and aromatic curries.

Still craving shark's fin soup?Hong Kong actress Michelle Yeoh orders hers at T'ang Court (Langham Hotel, 8 Peking Rd., Tsimshatsui; 852/2375-1133; lunch for two $70), whose wok-seared lobster should also be enshrined. Hong Kong's elite favors Grissini (Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, 1 Harbour Rd.; 852/2588-1234; dinner for two $195) for its carefully prepared Milanese dishes (porcini mushroom and pumpkin risotto, braised duck with aged balsamic reduction) paired with wines from its 1,000-bottle cellar.

The opening of Alain Ducasse's Spoon at the InterContinental Hotel (18 Salisbury Rd.; 852/2313-2256; dinner for two $155) has dispelled any doubt that the buzz is back in Hong Kong. The mix-and-match menu is just entertaining enough to compete with the view of the harbor. The hotel's seafood restaurant, Yu (852/2721-1211; dinner for two $150), shouldn't be overlooked: its seafood platter is phenomenal.

DIM SUM AND THEN SOME Few meals are more sacred in Hong Kong than a breakfast of dumplings and fragrant tea.

Excellent dim sum abounds: at luxe hotels, Titanic-sized dining halls, intimate teahouses, and utterly unlikely places such as Boris (Upper Ground Floor, Queens Place, 74 Queens Rd.; 852/2525-8803; lunch for two $20). Imagine falling into a glossy Absolut vodka ad, with Cyrillic lettering laminated on shiny walls; Russian tea glasses; and cushion-strewn banquettes. Only instead of borscht there are fat, crusty pork pot stickers, Shanghainese crab dumplings squirting hot broth, and kumquat-honey tea.

For something more classic, consider Maxim's Chinese Restaurant (2-3/F, Hennessy Centre, 500 Hennessy Rd., Causeway Bay; 852/2895-2200; dim sum for two $16), a sprawling place beloved by old-timers who congregate here after practicing tai chi in Victoria Park. Breakfast is grabbed from steam tables and carts piled with crisp taro cakes that defy gravity, shrimp har gaw wrapped in translucent rice-flour wrappers, and velvet-smooth fish balls.

WORTH THE DETOUR Travelers nostalgic for Hong Kong's colonial glamour of yore inevitably end up at Repulse Bay hotel, at the Verandah (109 Repulse Bay Rd., First Floor; 852/2812-2722; brunch for two $85). Here, whirling fans, palm trees, and a jazz trio add up to a setting so Hollywood, you expect to see William Holden appear. The Verandah's Sunday brunch is legendary for the extravagant buffet and the roving champagne-cocktail trolley (after several Kirs, some do see William Holden).

Crab legs are good at the Verandah, but serious pilgrims of the seafood faith take a one-hour ride to folksy Sai Kung village for a meal at a raucous waterside promenade lined with restaurants that look out onto a dense tangle of yachts and sampans. The best is Chuen Kee (87-89 Main Nin St.; 852/2792-9294, dinner for two $55), where striped soft-shell prawns and giant crabs are stir-fried in a delicious mix of ginger and scallions, and flying saucer-sized scallops are topped with cellophane noodles moistened with the chef's secret sauce.

Four Essential Snacks
1. CONGEE All of Hong Kong wakes up with a bowl of congee (juk), a reassuringly bland, long-simmered rice gruel. At Sang Kee Congee (7-9 Burd St., Sheung Wan; 852/2541-1099; breakfast for two $4), hard-core fans order it with pig's lungs or fish intestines. Squeamish?Try beef slices.
2. EGG TARTS These dainty warm tarts—crusts framing a silken egg-yolk custard—are as much an emblem of Hong Kong as the Star Ferry. Tai Chong Bakery (32 Lyndhurst Terrace; 852/2544-3475; tarts for two $1) also sells sugar-dusted choux pastry crullers. Worth every calorie.
3. WONTON Forget the leaden stuff from Chinese takeouts: at Chung Kee Noodle Restaurant (37 Wing Kut St., Sheung Wan; 852/2541-6388; lunch for two $4) the dumpling's delicate dough is shaped around shrimp and floats in clear broth loaded with eggy vermicelli.
4. BEEF BRISKET Braised with sweet spices and tangerine peel until it falls apart at the touch of a chopstick, the brisket from Kau Kee (21 Gough St., Sheung Wan; 852/2850-5967; dinner for two $6) draws office workers and those who pull up in Rolls-Royces.

Luxe Lounges
When it comes to sipping, grazing, and posing, Hong Kong doesn't miss a beat. Witness the action at Dragon-I (Centrium, 60 Wyndham St., Upper Ground Floor, Central; 852/3110-1222; dinner for two $116), a club-restaurant with a menu of nouvelle Japanese nibbles and an impossibly sexy terrace lounge outfitted with birdcages. The showbiz regulars order the "Bruce Lee" combo (foie gras, lobster, caviar, gold leaf). • At WasabiSabi (Times Square; Matheson St., 13th Floor; Causeway Bay; 852/2506-0009; dinner for two $84), sip passion-fruit "saketinis" and snack on grilled spicy fish roe, gazing out on a catwalk flanked by a shimmering wall of silvery beads. • With blown-up stills from Fellini films, artisanal grappas, and Euro-looking Cantonese model-actress types puffing on cigars under a red ceiling, Cinecittà (9 Star St., Wanchai; 852/2529-0199; dinner for two $52) trades in retro Italianate glamour. • Next door, Kokage (9 Star St., Wanchai; 852/2529-6138; dinner for two $52) attracts swells with its Nobu-esque interiors, well-edited sake list, and braised tuna cheeks with yuzu vanilla sauce. Everyone needs a break from pig's innards and fish eyes sometimes.

Drinking Up
Artisanal tea is the sip of the moment, and at Moon Garden Teahouse (5 Hoi Ping Rd.; 852/2882-6878), it's twirled, sniffed, and savored with the reverence normally reserved for dusty bottles of old Margaux. Vincent Chu, the boyish owner and a man in love with his leaves, explains the difference between Pu Erh (earthy and smooth) and oolong (fruity, semi-fermented) and steers customers toward white tea from the Fujian province ("it's air-dried on a sunny day"). The West Lake Dragon Well green tea has the fragrance of damp autumn leaves; at $50 a pot, Chu's red-label tea makes Margaux seem like a bargain.

Kee Club

The atmosphere in the salons may not resemble their predecessors of centuries ago, but this bar and restaurant works to create what it calls a “salon culture.” The Kee Club is a private, members-only club with three salons; the Purple Salon is a library with Jacobson chairs and an array of reading materials, while the Red Salon is rentable for business and dinner events. Resident DJs mix tunes from house to funk, and the Venetian Dining Room is led by Austrian chef Daniel Salchegger. 

Maxim's Chinese Restaurant

This venue is closed.

Man Wah

Go to the 25th floor of the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, for the sweeping views and gold-plated dim sum such as Wagyu beef–and–black pepper puffs and foie gras-and-prawn rolls.

Kokage

Kee

Kau Kee

Soup noodles with braised brisket, sweet spices, and tangerine peel is a steal at just $2.

Grissini

At the entrance to this popular Italian eatery, a large oven churns out batch after batch of the restaurant's eponymous dish: homemade breadsticks (grissini in Italian). Located inside the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, the candlelit dining room is designed with white-clothed tables, black Philippe Starck chairs, and abstract paintings by Californian artist Tony DeLap. Floor-to-ceiling windows overlook Victoria Harbour, while a spiral staircase leads to a 1,000-bottle wine cellar. In the kitchen, French Laundry alum Andrea Fraire crafts specialties from his native northern Italy, such as handmade garganelli pasta with sautéed red prawns, zucchini, and saffron.

Faye's Nouvelle Chinois Restaurant

Dragon-i

Part restaurant and part nightclub, Dragon-i draws a seemingly endless parade of models and A-list celebrities, with past guests including David Beckham, Jude Law, and Naomi Campbell. Inside, the venue is divided into three sections: the bar, set beneath tiny, star-like lights; the outdoor terrace, where numerous birdcages house live songbirds; and the dining room, decorated with bright red lanterns and banquettes with elaborate dragon designs. Incorporating Chinese and Japanese flavors, the menu includes a popular all-you-can-eat dim sum lunch, as well as dinner entrées like foie gras maguro yaki: pan-fried foie gras and tuna steak with teriyaki butter sauce.

Din Tai Fung, Hong Kong

Cinecittà

Located on the second floor of Cosmo Hotel Mongkok, this cinema-inspired eatery is named after the Italian film studio that produced the work of renowned director Federico Fellini. Inside, the dining room evokes a 1950’s vibe with blown-up stills from Fellini movies and a large screen showing black-and-white films. Ever-changing set menus are named after legendary Italian actors like Rudolph Valentino, Roberto Benigni, and Gina Lollobrigida. The á la carte menu includes antipasti, such as beef carpaccio, as well as homemade pastas and mains like braised ossobuco with Parmesan risotto. Dishes are paired with Italian wines from the glass-walled cellar.

Chung Kee Noodle Restaurant

Chuen Kee

Not all of Hong Kong’s notable restaurants are in the heart of the city; this one—famous for its fresh, reasonably priced seafood—is located in the fishing village of Sai Kung, northeast of the metropolis. One of several branches, the multilevel restaurant sits on the bustling waterfront promenade, which is lined with colorful sampans and floating markets. The no-frills interior contains little more than worn furniture and a number of live seafood tanks, from which diners choose their ingredients. The chefs then use the selected seafood to prepare entrées like steamed flower crabs, and salt-and-pepper mantis prawns.

Café TOO

There’s no need to settle for one culinary style at this vast international buffet, located on the seventh floor of the Island Shangri-La hotel. Inside, the restaurant is bright and airy, with light wood accents, eight brushed-steel cooking stations, and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Hong Kong Park. Breakfast includes made-to-order pancakes, tropical fruit, and an array of freshly squeezed juices, from traditional orange to more unusual options like cucumber-lime. For lunch and dinner, options range from Italian pastas and Indian curries to dim sum dishes like steamed barbecued pork buns. The dessert bar is lined with soufflés, pastries, and homemade gelato.

Boris

T'ang Court

Drawing such former guests as Jackie Chan, this Michelin two-starred restaurant serves gourmet Cantonese cuisine inside the Langham Hong Kong hotel. Inspired by the eponymous T’ang dynasty, the dining room is decorated with bright red carpet, velvet drapes, and white-clothed tables that are widely spaced for increased privacy. Dim sum is the preferred choice during lunch hours, while popular dinner entrées include stir-fried lobster with onion, and braised shark’s fin with sliced lobster, crab claw, and scallop in hot and sour soup. T’ang Court also has a series of set menus designed specifically for pregnant women.

Spring Moon

Located on the first floor of the Peninsula Hong Kong hotel, this upscale Cantonese restaurant is designed to reflect the history of the Peninsula, which first opened in 1928. The dining room has Art Deco—style touches, including stained-glass panels and dark wood accents, as well as oriental rugs, classic white tablecloths, and walls lined with sepia-toned photographs. The lunchtime dim sum menu includes shrimp dumplings and deep-fried taro, while the dinner menu features what many consider the best Peking duck in the city. Professional tea masters are on hand to guide diners through the list of 25 Chinese teas.

Spoon

Owned by world-famous chef Alain Ducasse, this Michelin two-starred restaurant is located on the ground floor of the InterContinental Hotel, overlooking Victoria Harbour. More than 500 hand-blown Murano glass spoons line the ceiling of the Tony Chi—designed space, which also contains an open kitchen, eel-skin chairs, and a wall of picture windows framing panoramic views of the water. The menu lists contemporary French dishes, such as steamed duck foie gras with citrus and peppers, and pan-seared sea scallops with pumpkin and white truffle. In addition, the restaurant also serves a tasting menu with wine pairings from the 3,000-bottle cellar.

Sang Kee Congee

Americans may not happily push their bowl of Lucky Charms aside for rice porridge, but in Hong Kong congee is the breakfast of champions. Known to some as “jook,” congee is made by boiling white rice until it becomes porridge, then adding seasoning and either meat or fish. This Sheung Wan grab-and-go restaurant serves up many varieties of the dish, and regulars order it not only for breakfast staple but throughoout the day. Adventurous diners opt for authentic add-ins like fish belly or fish intestines, while the less daring choose pork or beef.

Victoria City Seafood Restaurant

Cantonese dim sum, seafood, and Shanghai-style fare are served in the banquet-style dining room of this Wan Chai-area restaurant. Located on the second floor of the Sun Hung Kai Centre, Victoria City Seafood specializes in dishes such as soup dumplings with hairy-crab roe and steamed rice rolls. A large aquarium outside the entrance teems with fish available for fresh-from-the-tank preparation. Generous-size, round tables abound to accommodate large groups and families.

The Verandah

Some say the bay was named after the British navy’s repulsing of squatter pirates, while others claim a ship inspired the moniker. Whatever the origin, this area of Hong Kong's Southern District is now home to pricey apartments, expensive restaurants, and upscale shopping. Refurbished in 2009, The Verandah aims to recreate the colonial ambience of the former Repulse Bay Hotel, with soaring ceilings, white walls, ceiling fans, and ocean-view windows. Continental cuisine is the specialty, and the seafood platter may include fresh-caught prawns, mussels, salmon, and scallops perched on top of potatoes and asparagus.

Yung Kee Restaurant

Founder Kam Shui Fai’s reputation for roasted goose began at his humble street-side food stall before the onset of World War II. From that beginning grew the business that would one day earn the chef a Michelin star three years in a row. Service is quick and may seem harsh to the diner not used to the place's streamlined, Cantonese mannerisms. Nevertheless, tourists and locals alike fill this Central neighborhood spot on a regular basis to sample the famous roasted goose in plum sauce and other traditional dishes, like char siew (barbequed pork), stir-fried pigeon, or sliced beef with oyster sauce. Four set menus are available, along with a la carte and take-out.

Yu

Wing Lai Yuen

Sichuan fare is known to start a party (or a fire, with the proper seasoning) in your mouth, so have a glass of water at the ready before digging in at this Hung Hom neighborhood restaurant in the Whampoa Garden development. Round tables, red walls, and red-and-white chairs set a bright atmosphere at this ground floor location. Xiao long bao steamed buns get the appetite revved up in anticpation of traditional dishes like pot stickers, sliced pork in a tangy and sweet sauce, or braised eggplant with oyster sauce.

Whampoa Gourmet Place

There’s no need to settle for just one restaurant at this Kowloon food mall, part of the Wonderful Worlds of Whampoa. Across from the cruise ship-shaped Whampoa shopping center, this high-rise houses an assortment of dining options. Start with a traditional boiled Hong Kong breakfast porridge at the Tasty Congee & Noodle Wantun Shop. For a spicy lunch, head to Wing Lai Yuen for Sichuan fare like dan dan mian noodles. And stop by the ground floor Wing Wah Cake shop to pick up a pack of sausage, a mooncake, or a bag of jasmine tea for the road.

Water Margin

WasabiSabi

This sleek Japanese bar and dining room lets patrons walk the runway that separates the restaurant and bar areas. Part of the Aqua restaurant group, this hip Times Square location is decorated in gold, red, and black; the catwalk is gold, and the Lipstick Lounge’s color is bright shades of red. Sushi takes center stage and the seafood is lown in daily from Tokyo's Tsukiji Fish Market. Options range from California maki rolls to kappa maki cucumber rolls, and datupi kana maki with soft-shell crab. For after dinner, drinks include a tiramisu cocktail and kiwi smoothie.

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