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Eating in Hong Kong

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.

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