Eating in Hong Kong
Published: April 2009
By Anya von Bremzen
In a city famous for its food, it's hard to know where to dig in. <b>Anya von Bremzen</b> maps out the ultimate guide
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.
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.
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.