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.