Hong Kong's Best Restaurants
Published: September 2009
By Gary Shteyngart
T+L conquered an army of dishes to find the best food in Hong Kong.
Food, food, food, food, food. it’s been a month since my intensive two-week tour of Hong Kong restaurants and the non-fat, low-taste yogurt and Whole Foods berries staring back at me from the typical American breakfast table bring to mind a fallen civilization. What I wouldn’t do for a lardy egg tart for breakfast, a braised goose for lunch, and for dinner, I believe I would like several smoky fishes, two plates of tea-soaked shrimp, and one serving of barbecued char siu pork, the sauce bleeding into the rice, my nostrils awake and alive to the scent of everything.
Hong Kong is food. I heard somewhere that there’s shopping and finance, too. I know there’s a smattering of the arts, because my friend, the superb writer and Hong Kong resident Janice Lee—her atmospheric first novel, The Piano Teacher, is set in the former colony—invites me to a reading at an important shoe store. Oh, and there’s other stuff one probably shouldn’t miss—skylines and beaches, temples and spas.
But mostly there’s food.
From the free candy you get upon landing at immigration to the noodle-soup station at the business-class lounge dishing out shrimp wontons at dusk, a trip to Hong Kong is framed by sustenance. The relative compactness of the city, the tight embrace of its subtropical climate, the excellent subways and cheap taxis—everything conspires to move you about until you find the perfect little air-conditioned hole-in-the-wall where, at three in the morning, a small family will be slicing up mangoes. From the many-starred hotel establishments to the crowd of Filipina maids eating Sunday plates of gleaming rice in the lobby of Norman Foster’s HSBC skyscraper, everyone is in on the action and everyone’s a critic. A popular lunch, brunch, and dinnertime topic is the recent publication of the first Michelin guide to Hong Kong and how they managed to get everything wrong. Food is personal here, bad food an insult, good food a blessing, and the best way to see Hong Kongers at their most communal and animated is to follow them directly to the table.
To begin your Hong Kong culinary education, have your hotel wangle an invitation to Saturday brunch at the China Club, a members-only oasis taking up the top three floors of the old Bank of China building. This is as central as you can get in Hong Kong’s Central district. From the China Club’s outdoor deck, facing Kowloon across the harbor, all the restaurants I am about to visit stretch before me—from the cool neighborhoods of Causeway Bay and Wan Chai to the east to busy, authentic Sheung Wan to the west. The retro 1930’s Shanghai teahouse décor is beautiful. Note the elegant ceiling fans, the rotary phones, the Art Deco touches, and the extensive contemporary-art collection featuring Chinese “political pop”—for example, Yu Youhan’s hilarious painting of Chairman Mao exhorting his boys, next to singer Whitney Houston exhorting herself. The art has always been peppy and tasteful, but after a decade of unexceptional Cantonese dishes, the club’s members tell me the food at the China Club is finally holding its own.
My hosts are my friends and longtime Hong Kong residents Eunei and Ron Lee, both of fine appetite and unimpeachable taste—their six-year-old, Isaiah, is already comfortable distinguishing between Taiwanese and Filipino mangoes—and they steer me to some local favorites: the smooth liver in congee with nuts, a crispy barbecue pork that stands up decently to the char siu found on the streets, and a succulent, spicy razor clam.
The first word of the day is tai-tai, a wealthy housewife, and one who often lives to shop and lunch. (The state of the economy has given rise to the guy-tai, a former Master of the Universe now living off his girlfriend or wife.) I see a tai-tai crowd awaiting the arrival of attractively honeycombed shredded-turnip cakes and diving for the plate of sweet caramelized tofu. Their instincts are usually right. The second word of the day is gweilo, a fairly innocuous way of pointing out a white person. Things have changed since the handover of the territory from the British to the Chinese in 1997, and today at the China Club there are but a few gweilos circulating pinkly among the masses of helmet-haired Cantonese grandmothers and remarkably intact multigenerational families.
At the China Club, where children are allowed in on Saturdays, little English boys in blazers can be seen behaving oh-so-well, while their brattier Chinese cousins run around, their plates laden with webbed goose feet. Hong Kong promotes itself as “Asia’s World City,” but with a population that is over 90 percent Chinese, that may be overstating the case a bit. Hong Kong is a Cantonese city, relatively tolerant and certainly exceptional, but at times provincial and close-knit, its inhabitants bound by ties of kinship, language, and food. Saturday brunch at the China Club is a good place to sit back with a turnip cake while examining the social lay of the land.
Another point of entry might be one of the Lei Gardens, a chain of uncomplicated Singapore-originated restaurants that manage to do just about everything right. Eunei takes me to an older branch in the bustling Wan Chai district to feast on standards such as lobster with ginger and scallion, a near-perfect Peking duck and, once again, the barbecued pork, moist and fragrant, that signals the best of its kind. “The force is strong in this one,” one local pork connoisseur says as I bite into a particularly fatty piece of swine. With curiosity and appreciation, my girlfriend, who has just flown in from the States, notes that at this table the women order for the men.
The Next Level
With the standards under our belt, it’s time to take things up a notch. The happening Star Street neighborhood, in Wan Chai, is crammed with boutiques, a mozzarella bar, and fancy cake shops, not to mention a yogurt store dispensing the upwardly mobile “Sharie’s BMW combo.” For a brief pit stop try Olala Charcuterie, where you can score a refreshing salad with extra-lean Serrano ham and an undercurrent of beets. Sturdier dishes include an oxtail stewed with red wine and vegetables and a lusty boeuf bourguignon. The food is decent and the place adorable, a glassed-in locale where a wooden table is exactly that, and where you can while away an entire afternoon listening to Chinese yuppies discussing the finer points of Pinot. In deference to local tastes, the popular meat lasagna will give you a sugar high for days.
But the true star of the Star Street neighborhood is its newest addition. Everyone—tai-tais, guy-tais, mai-tais—is talking about Cépage, the rosy-cheeked, sure-footed progeny of the pedigreed Les Amis restaurant in Singapore. “It’s probably the best restaurant in Hong Kong right now,” one foodie tells me, wiping XO sauce from his chin as we devour a lobster at another restaurant: eating at one place and rhapsodizing about another—so Hong Kong. From the lightly provocative art by Mao Tong Qiang (the iconic Iwo Jima soldiers hoisting a gigantic dollar symbol instead of the Stars and Stripes) to the timber-paneled red-wine cellar to the burgundy velvet armchairs to the sleek Laguiole knives to the soon-to-come rooftop garden (cigars!), Cépage is understated swank. Resident chef Thomas Mayr was born in a village in northern Italy whose inhabitants spoke a German dialect, and his training at Munich’s spectacular Restaurant Tantris further reinforced his cosmopolitan credentials. As a result, the standard appellation French-Mediterranean doesn’t begin to do the food justice. All the goodies of Asia and Europe have been conscripted into seasonal roles. The thoughtful wine list dutifully bows down to all these fine ingredients.
In the calm, beteaked dining room, along with lunching ladies in head-to-toe Chanel and nattily attired businessmen, we enjoy a frisky 2007 Sigalas from Santorini with a carpaccio of Hokkaido scallop, citrus fruit, and lemon balm, topped with a little sea salt. The star of the show is a Les Amis classic, the “Tayouran” egg confit, with truffled oxtail gelée, lomo ibérico, and croutons. The slow-cooked Japanese organic egg, ethereal in its rising-sun orangeness, is paired with the crunch of the croutons, the meaty tang of the ibérico ham.
It doesn’t end there. A Barossa Valley Shiraz, peppery and wrestler-bodied, confronts a pan-roasted coquelet breast and leg stuffed with morel mushrooms, carrots, and celeriac mousseline. At the next table, a French and a German banker worry about their respective economies, but the German sings: “This chicken feels very fresh!” Even a jazzy take on the Goldberg Variations looping for hours over the sound system can’t spoil the fun of Hong Kong’s brightest new restaurant.
Money, food, and gossip fuel Hong Kong, and you can find a nice combination of the three at the Golden Valley restaurant at the Emperor Hotel, in Happy Valley. We are joined by our friend, the businessman Daniel Ng, a Hong Konger by birth who, in an odd gastronomic twist, was responsible for introducing the McDonald’s chain to Hong Kong and later to China. A diminutive man in his sixties, Ng is deliciously irreverent, opinionated (on the subject of the British: “Good riddance!”), and knows where all the local skeletons are buried. The Emperor Hotel, he tells us, is a notorious place for quickies, and is also connected to Hong Kong’s most succulent, R. Kellyesque scandal. The hotel is owned by the company that managed the famed singer and actor Edison Chen, who photographed himself getting carnal with Hong Kong’s most impressive young pop stars, and then made the mistake of entrusting his computer to a local repair shop, with predictable results. “And we were supposed to use those girls for McDonald’s commercials!” Ng tells us, shaking his head and letting out his thrilling honk of a laugh, along with his signature line: “This is such BS!”
There’s happy, drunken giggling all around the Golden Valley—just being in this cavernous space, only the ceiling separating us from a reputed hot-sheet hotel, feels naughty. I am not a big fan of the hot pot, the restaurant’s specialty, but this version, made eye-watering by Sichuan spicing, makes me a believer. There’s a chewy, buttery pork neck, amazing crispy fish skin, and a brisket of Lower East Side quality. The basic ingredients for the hot pot are also amazingly diverse—Sichuan peppercorns that unload like a small shot of novocaine; spicy tofu; a dash of lard. The appetizers are top-notch: a plump, juicy bomb of a meatball; slippery dan-dan noodles full of peanut and spice; a chili chicken. We are lost in a frenzy of food, shocked by the Satyricon dimensions of the platters and the communal wonder of it all. After four hours of dining and untold consumption of cows, chickens, and bitter melons, Ng says, “Let’s go out for some spicy crab.” In Hong Kong, at close to midnight, this passes for a nightcap.
We never make it to the crab, but we do join Ng at Lung King Heen. This is the only restaurant in Hong Kong to get three stars from the 2009 Michelin guide, and the locals were not all pleased. Sample harangue: “These French [Michelin] people, what do they understand? They only care about the view. So many better restaurants in Hong Kong, but not so fancy.” Well, it is true, you cannot beat the view from atop the Four Seasons Hotel, the meditative arrangements of wood and glass dipping into the harbor. But allow me to sing the praises of the Japanese pork with marinated red-bean curd crust and pancakes. The lightly fried pork looks golden and actually tastes golden, while the spring onion has been julienned with startling precision. And then there’s the off-the-menu house favorite: the pan-fried, silky-smooth grouper with a shading of black truffle used with perfect restraint. (The chef apparently keeps an emergency supply of black truffles for those in the know.) The meal is surprisingly inexpensive, especially since we have steered away from the Chinese obsession with abalone. (Ng: “I hate abalone! It tastes like bad chewing gum. This is such BS!”)
The view from Lung King Heen is thrilling, but closing out a night like this may require two more experiences with altitude and alcohol. The M Bar at the nearby Mandarin Oriental hotel allows you to gaze straight down onto the harbor from the 25th floor, as Chinese businessmen blow cigar smoke into the sexy gloom. The Earl Grey “mar-tea-ni,” rimmed with sugar and salt and infused with orange, is a clever mix of strong booze and light caffeine and the perfect way to regain focus after chewing the hell out of an abalone during dinner. And if you fancy a beer snack, the deep-fried tofu, garlicky little fried cubes dipped in chili-salt, will do a nice tap dance along your tongue.
Across the harbor, the venerable Peninsula hotel beckons for a final view of the night: the bar at the Felix restaurant. The glowing harbor from the window of the 28th floor resembles a nautical Times Square with boats beating their way across the water, framed by a skyline garishly lit with the names of troubled American banks. The men’s room is already infamous. Let’s just say that during a sensitive moment, the whole city is at your feet (thank you, Philippe Starck). Downstairs, Salon de Ning is a pleasantly weird place to get blitzed on fruity pink Deutz champagne while lounging among the dandiest collection of antique bric-a-brac this side of Hudson, New York (sequined pillows; enormous perfume bottles; a lion’s head). Whoever designed this place must have had a ton and a half of fun.
Okay, time to get serious. We wake up at an ungodly hour to inspect the venerable markets in Kowloon’s Mong Kok neighborhood with Tsui Kit Po, the affable executive sous-chef at the InterContinental hotel. “The ginger man has been here sixty years,” Po tells us, as the shop owners happily banter with him and show off their exciting star fruit. The mood is hectic. Sun-peeled subtropical buildings surround us, along with new towers of pure glass and steel. A covered market was built here by the government, but Po says it remains mostly empty. “People go to the market to get fresh air,” he tells us. Older people still in their silky morning dress elbow us into various encounters with medicinal deer antlers, homemade noodle shops, sea horses in a bin that glow like a bushel of toddler’s toys, air-dried scallops smelling of salt and sea (little ones for the congee, bigger ones for vegetable dishes), mushrooms the size of my head, tiny dried shrimp in sunset colors, chili-marinated root vegetables, crabs tied up with heavy string, tiny green Shanghai bok choy, and the bodies of fresh fish doing somersaults, their disembodied heads still gasping for air. Freshness is everything here. Of the fish, Po says: “First hour high price, second hour another price.”
After the market, he takes us to the InterContinental’s Yan Toh Heen restaurant, overlooking the harbor, to show us how crystal flour used in the casing of dim sum dumplings makes them translucent, while spinach or carrot juice provides color. The basic sui mai shrimp-and-pork dumpling is used to judge the “class of the restaurant,” according to Po. Following one tasty specimen, we gorge on sweet barbecued pork buns, steamed rice-flour cannelloni with diced scallop and crabmeat, and crispy spring rolls with shredded chicken and the glorious zing of pickles. “Quality of meat, quality of the finger,” Po says as his dexterous chefs wrap their tiny gifts for us. “The shrimp dumpling has nothing to hide.”
The owners of one of the busier stands at Mong Kok market are Chiu Chow people from nearby Guangdong province. I am intrigued by the aniseed-flavored soy sauce that colors their geese and pigs a mournful gray hue. The need to explore this Cantonese splinter cuisine is strong. Our next lunch stop is the Sheung Hing Chiu Chow Restaurant, on Queen’s Road. In an airtight, windowless room, we listen to a British gweilo brought in by his Chinese coworkers as he tries to cover the bill. “You shouldn’t have to pay!” the Chinese are shouting. “This was too adventurous for you!” The adventure lies in squeezing through this tight, packed, hygienically challenged joint, but the food is as comforting as any. There’s a duck leg in lemon soup that flakes right off the bone; there’s the fried baby oyster omelette which actually melts before reaching your mouth; and I cannot forget the shrimp sauce suffusing a dish of spinach—rich, salty, and strong. And then of course there’s that Chiu Chow classic, goose meat with soy sauce. It’s a spectacularly moist goose breast, squatting over a bed of tofu and ready to be dipped in a garlicky vinegar sauce. You can’t ignore the cupboard of ingredients that fuel the taste of this animal—ginger, lemon, soy, anise, and so many other supporting players in what amounts to a one-dish feast.
After we wake up from a four-hour goose coma, it’s time to tackle Hong Kong’s controversial foray into molecular cuisine, Bo Innovation. Bo originated as one of Hong Kong’s storied private kitchens and then morphed into what it is today: a space-age terraced room looking out on the back of an unspectacular building.
Bo was not my favorite Hong Kong meal, but neither did I stab the owner with my red pen on the way out. A little dish of ebi in red truffle sauce supplied deep and briny flavors, its fibrous texture turned rich and creamy. Pan-fried scallops in Sichuan “jolo” sauce had a kind of cool laboratory feel—as if microscopic, counterintuitive tastes were doing battle over your senses—but nothing could detract from the dry, unremarkable scallop at the center of the experiment, and this in a city where scallops thrive. “The menu changes every week,” the manager says, hovering over my friend Janice Lee’s half-finished plate. A sour kumquat ice cream in a nutty cone finally leaves us marginally happy, but all I can think about is that Chiu Chow goose breast speaking to me from within.
Over on the Kowloon side, Tin Heung Lau is so popular among in-the-know locals that the staff at the Peninsula have to use their clout to get us a brief 45-minute appointment with the restaurant’s famed smoked fish. The menu alone is a joy to read and a testament to just how few foreign souls make it to these parts. There are a lot of animals in need of intervention here, the “chicken alcoholic” and his cousin the “alcoholic crab” (the kitchen has sadly run out of the intriguing “braised bear coupon”). The food is spectacular. The famous Longjing tea leaves from the Hangzhou region make the stir-fried freshwater shrimp taste sweet and earthy, but the star of the show is missing from the English side of the menu—the smoked yellow croaker, an unremarkable, bottom-dwelling creature that, in the hands of the Tin Heung Lau staff, emerges as the most tender, smokiest piece of fish I’ve tasted throughout all my happy smoked sturgeon–filled years.
Closing time approaches. Families sip their last teas. I look up to notice the cheap hangers and faux-wood partitions that pretty much are the décor. Next to us, a well-dressed Chinese-American man in his twenties prepares his parents for his upcoming dismissal from a hedge fund. We dip what’s left of our croaker into pepper sauce. Whatever this is, it’s real.
The Peninsula Salisbury Rd., Kowloon; 866/382-8388; doubles from $564.
Eat and Drink
Bo Innovation 60 Johnston Rd., Wan Chai; 852/2850-8371; dinner for two $175.
Cépage 23 Wing Fung St., Wan Chai; 852/2810-0532; dinner for two $280.
China Club Old Bank of China Building, Bank St., Central; 852/2521-8888; dinner for two $103.
Felix The Peninsula, Salisbury Rd., Kowloon; 852/2315-3188; dinner for two $232.
Golden Valley Emperor Hotel, 1 Wang Tak St., Happy Valley; 852/2961-3330; dinner for two $74.
Lei Garden CNT Tower, 338 Hennessy Rd., Wan Chai; 852/2892-0333; dinner for two $38.
Lung King Heen Four Seasons Hotel, 8 Finance St., Central; 852/3196-8880; dinner for two $200.
M Bar Mandarin Oriental, 5 Connaught Rd., Central; 852/2522-0111; drinks for two $25.
Olala Charcuterie 2 Star St., Wan Chai; 852/2294-0450; dinner for two $206.
Salon de Ning The Peninsula, Salisbury Rd., Kowloon; 852/2315-3355; drinks for two $25.
Sheung Hing Chiu Chow Restaurant 29 Queen’s Rd., Sheung Wan; 852/2854-4557; dinner for two $51.
Tin Heung Lau 18C Austin Ave., Tsim Sha Tsui; 852/2366-2414; dinner for two $206.
Yan Toh Heen InterContinental, 18 Salisbury Rd., Kowloon; 852/2313-2323; dinner for two $148.
The InterContinental hotel offers guests guided tours of the Mong Kok markets. 852/2721-1211; 1 1/2-hour tour $89.