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.