From Snakes in Bags to the Highest Bar in the World, a Culinary Guide to Hong Kong
Hong Kong was in love with food when I moved there more than 30 years ago. When I went back a month ago, nothing had changed except the restaurants.
The food market on a road in North Point, where I lived in 1983, was always jammed. People made way only for the trams that pushed their way through, bells ringing out above the cacophony of commerce.
On the corner was a butcher's shop, open to the street, bloody carcasses filling the rails. I'd point and the butcher would haul down some meat and hack at it with a huge chopper, wrapping it in meat that he would wrap in paper and hand to me with a smile.
Across the road, a guy would keep a bag of snakes. He'd haul one out and skin it alive before removing the gall bladder for customers wanting to make soup. I was squeamish but couldn't help standing and watching in fascination.
The staccato sound of raised voices spitting out Cantonese; the smell of the stinking tofu served by vendors; the clanging bells of the trams and the screeching wheels as they rounded the tight bend into the market; and the bustle—the energy: It was a scene so vivid, so alien, I shall never forget it.
And then there was Hong Kong at night. In England in the early 1980s, most stores closed around 6 p.m. and the pubs shut by 11 p.m. The streets were mostly quiet and empty and dark.
In Hong Kong, I walked through Causeway Bay , whose pavements were crowded with shoppers hurrying along or dawdling with friends to look into brightly lit stores. Noise filled the air—not just the sound of people and cars and buses, but the sound of metal being bashed and of whirring drills as work continued late into the night.
Back home in London, I'd found Oxford Street busy before Christmas. The average Hong Kong evening was infinitely more frenetic, and the volume would turn up on public holidays.
It was the restaurants that struck me as much as anything did. Back home, going out to dine was a treat for birthdays and special occasions. Families generally ate at home. In Hong Kong, every type of eating house—from huge, fancy restaurants to tiny dai pai dong street-food stalls—was packed with generations of diners. Eating out, from dim sum in the morning to late-night snacks, was enjoyed by everyone.
It's where this kind of demand exists that restaurants can thrive and multiply. The standard of Western food—for which there was less of an appetite—was generally low. You had to go to hotels to get decent Italian or French. The same was true of Japanese cuisine. I knew of two Thai dining rooms in those days.
Occasionally, I would go to Italian restaurants in Wanchai for pasta at the start of a night on the town.
When I returned this year, not a lot had changed in Wanchai, where the nightlife was as frenetic as I remember it. But the restaurant scene was transformed, having accelerated from innovations that were underway when I left in 1995.
I was in the city for just a few days. Here's a rundown of the places I ate. (Stay tuned for a further roundup of just dim sum spots.)
I went to this restaurant in Central because this used to be the power-dining spot in Hong Kong. I expected big steaks and bigger wines, not realizing that the Mandarin has progressed with the times. The room is now bright and light, as is the cuisine of Uwe Opocensky.
The German executive chef has worked in the kitchens of El Bulli—as well as with Anton Mosimann and Alain Ducasse—and the DNA of the pioneering Catalan restaurant is all over the menu here, with deconstructed olives and a dish of edible soil.
I ordered bacon & egg, in which a tranche of pork belly is served with duck egg, herb butter, and black truffle on a bed of hay on a hot plate. It's a colorful dish sprinkled with flowers and herbs that release the earthy smells of the countryside before you taste the intense flavors of the meat, which below its crispy skin is soft and moist.
Similarly theatrical in its presentation is the fish & chips dish, in which amadai (tilefish) and crispy potato parcels are served on a hot rock with fog from dry ice billowing from below. The fish is beautifully cooked, the pommes soufflees are a clever alternative to chips, and a mix of peas and broad beans substitutes for the usual mushy peas. I can't remember ever enjoying fish & chips more.
There is some very good cooking at the Mandarin Grill, but it is a hotel restaurant. It is hushed, and it is expensive. It's HK$888 ($114.50) for two courses and HK$1,088 for three. (Eight is a lucky number in Chinese because it sounds like the word for wealth.) If you're on a short visit, you may prefer to dine out, but don't miss the opportunity to go if someone invites you.
Mandarin Grill, 5 Connaught Road, Mandarin Oriental, Central; +852-2825-4004.
Aberdeen Street Social
This is the latest Hong Kong restaurant from British chef Jason Atherton. It's housed in the old Police Married Quarters in Soho. There's a ground-floor bar with unusual cocktails such as the P.I.S.C.O., which features pisco, blue curacao, lemon verbena, salted pineapple cordial, lime juice, and soda. For all that, it didn't taste interesting enough to distract from the disco light concealed amid the ice, which turned it a series of lurid colors.
Upstairs, you can dine on a balcony of the historic building. The menu is modern British, with rustic starters such as pig's trotter and ham hock with crispy black pudding, apple, and Madeira (HK$152); and ravioli of Suffolk pork, Berkswell cheese, peppered hearts, and kidneys (HK$218). The punchy flavors were all there, but the restaurant was quiet and lacking in buzz. I love Atherton's food, but I much preferred 22 Ships tapas bar.
Aberdeen Street Social, 35 Aberdeen Street, Police Married Quarters; +852-2866-0300.
This Wanchai venue doesn't just buzz, it sizzles. The place is usually packed with young diners seated at the bar, on communal tables or at a counter along the walls. There's a short menu of small plates such as crispy oyster, chili, and ginger (HK$58); and crispy hen's egg, miso mayonnaise & artichokes (HK$108).
The cooking is assured. Each dish looks great and tastes exactly as it should, with a few ingredients and minimum fuss. Even if you aren't hungry (which I wasn't, as I headed here directly from Aberdeen Street Social) you can enjoy the scene.
The service is friendly. You jostle for space with a fun crowd. There are no reservations, and there is no service charge. It's a great place to hang out for beers and snacks.
22 Ships, 22 Ship Street, Wanchai; +852-2555-0722.
Ham & Sherry
Opposite 22 Ships is Ham & Sherry, Atherton's third Hong Kong venue. As the name suggest, there's a wide choice of sherry and jamon, as well as other drinks and snacks. Ham & Sherry is less frenetic than 22 Ships, where you may have to line up.
There is a third option: Go down an alleyway at the side of Ham & Sherry and an unmarked door leads you to the Back Bar, a speakeasy with cocktails, charcuterie, and snacks such as croquettes with potato aioli (HK$58), and padron peppers (HK$68.) One-way glass enables you to watch the action next door. (Well, I was told it was one-way; I didn't go round to check.)
Ham & Sherry, Ship Street, Wanchai; +852-2555-0628.
Craft Brew & Co.
This corner bar has little by way of decoration: It's all about the beer. You just pull up a stool and try a range of draft and bottled brews. It's all artisan stuff and the website warns: No Carlsberg. No Stella. No San Miguel. It's a fine spot to cool off after a visit to Chilli Fagara.
Craft Brew & Co., 17 Old Bailey Street, Soho; +852-2885-0821.
This informal restaurant is just down the hill from Craft Brew. While Sichuan cuisine is known for its heat, I wasn't quite prepared for how hot the dishes were here. They were scorching.
Yet it was worth the sweat, the tears, the Gwyneth Paltrow moment, to enjoy the cooking. A subtle array of spices hid behind the heat and occasionally popped out to say hello. The slices of beef ,crisped and glazed with a caramelized garlic-and-ginger infused sauce (HK$138), were epic: Sweet and earthy and crunchy, while attacking your sinuses. The shredded pork featured the right sour note. Even the string beans were intense.
The service was exceptionally polite—unlike the flavors, which were almost pugilistic in their aggression.
Chilli Fagara, G/F 7 Old Bailey Street, Central; +852-2796-6866. (There are two branches.)
This two-floor venue in Central feels like a private club. There is an outdoor terrace with wicker furniture amid tropical greenery, as well as a posh dining room serving Chinese cuisine. The place is elegant, refined, and expensive, with gorgeous designs and furniture and rotating exhibitions of artworks, reflecting the owners' ambition that this should be a salon, not just a restaurant.
I let rip on the menu, with pan-fried oyster and Peking Duck, and on the wine list, ending up with a bill of HK$3,471 for two. Was it worth it? I'd say so, even though I didn't dare put the whole bill on Bloomberg. The duck was perfectly cooked: The skin was as brittle (and almost as sweet) as a toffee wafer; the flesh was soft and yielding. The wines (Martinelli, Woolsey Road Chardonnay 2007 and Maison Nicolas Potel Morey-Saint Denis 2007) were served at just the right temperature. If I were an oligarch, I might hang out here. Until then, I'd say it is a good spot for an important business meeting or a hot date who likes hushed and serious restaurants. (Duddell's holds two Michelin stars.)
Duddell's, Duddell Street, Shanghai Tang Mansion; +852-2525-9191.
Moving from the sublime to the rather unusual, Maharani is housed on level two of a rundown building in Central. You are likely to find it by way of one of the touts who hang around outside to lure tourists into a dodgy looking lift.
This wasn’t a chance encounter for me. The then-Maharani Mess was one of the first restaurants I visited in Hong Kong and I still remember the signature dish of chicken makhanwala, with its rich tomato and butter sauce, topped with cream. In the old days, the owner used to pour a slug of brandy on top and set fire to it.
Maharani has moved at least twice over the years, and these days it has a touch of the backpacker look associated with restaurants in Chungking Mansions, an even-more run-down building in Kowloon. The brandy has also gone, but the rest is as I remember it from 32 years ago. With a dish of keema mutter (minced lamb), bread, yoghurt, and several beers, my bill was HK$308.
Maharani, Level 2, 37 d'Aguilar Street, Lan Kwai Fong, Central; +852-2981-6525.
One of Hong Kong's finest restaurants is hidden on the third floor of an unremarkable building in Central. Arcane is the new home of Shane Osborn, an Australian who won many fans in London at Pied à Terre, where he held two Michelin stars.
Arcane features a terrace on which Osborn grows his herbs, and where diners may sit on warm days. But the best seats in the house are at the counter, where you can watch him and his young team work quietly and harmoniously, putting together dishes whose apparent simplicity disguises a rigorous aesthetic and a zen-like focus.
While the menu is modern European, the spirit is Japanese, from the stripped-back restaurant designs through staff uniforms to the plates: Each ingredient is near-perfect. Nothing is there that isn't needed. The flavors are as clean as an ancient spring on a Kyushu mountain.
Much of the menu is given over to fish, which Osborn mainly sources from Fukuoka, in western Japan. This is all the more remarkable when you learn that he has a fish allergy, rather like Beethoven composing when deaf.
Meat options include short rib of Wagyu beef, soft Parmesan polenta, and truffled sweet corn—a distillation of smoky flavors. It's good, but the stars are fish dishes such as pepper-seared tuna with crushed potatoes, marinated shallot, black olives, and watercress. This looks beautiful, with the red fish slices sitting atop the potato, surrounded by the greenery of the cress, with a dressing drizzled around the edge of the plate.
Arcane, 18 On Lan Street; +852-2728-0178.
Serge et le Phoque
This contemporary French brasserie, on a back street in Wanchai, has an industrial look and serves a daily menu of innovative dishes such as spinach with hazelnuts, onion/sesame juice, goat cheese, and grapefruit. There are tasting menus for HK$650 and HK$850.
I arrived after dinner at Arcane and almost all the voices I heard in the dimly lit room were French. The owners come from the fashionable Le Chateaubriand and La Bigarrade restaurants in Paris. (Chateaubriand placed 27th in the World's 50 Best Restaurants last year.) Serge et Le Phoque retains the hip, underground ambience of the so-called bistronomy movement of gourmet dining in a casual environment.
I stayed only for drinks, but I can recommend the wine list and the vibe. This will be my first destination the next time I'm in Hong Kong.
Serge et le Phoque, 3 Wanchai Road, Zenith Tower; +852-5465-2000.
This casual venue at Police Married Quarters bills itself as the place where urban farming meets comfort Hong Kong cuisine. The aim is to promote healthy living by serving chemical-free dishes made with locally produced ingredients.
You can sit in a brightly colored room in a shop that sells craft goods or you can sit outside, where you serve yourself once a buzzer lets you know your meal is ready. It's not the best food in Hong Kong—there's a rough-and-ready style to the cooking and presentation—but I liked Sohofama as much as anywhere I ate.
I enjoyed the casual and friendly style of service. I liked dining al fresco, seated on a bench in a garden of herbs. Most of all, I delighted in the food which, for all its simplicity, was packed with flavors. The Shanghai pan-fried pork buns were served on a board with shredded cabbage and a few chives. The green beans with minced pork were salty and crunchy and moist.
I stumbled across this hole-in-the-wall French brasserie in Kennedy Town while looking for a different restaurant. I see online that chef David Lai is classically trained and has worked for Alain Ducasse. I knew nothing of that and was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of the cooking. The pate maison (HK$88)—simply served with mustard and cornichons—was expertly seasoned, with a great, coarse texture. The carbonara linguine, with whole-wheat pasta, was deep and dark in color and flavor and topped with a fluffy poached egg. It was way better than I expected in a place I found at random.
Bistronomique is on Davis Street by the water, at the food of Mt. Davis. +852 2818 8266.
I realize you may want to hear about little-known restaurants you won't find in guide books. But, hey, this was my last night in town. I stopped off, en route to the airport, at the Ritz-Carlton in Kowloon. The hotel boasts the highest bar in the world. Ozone is on floor 118, and the views are amazing.
Dinner was a few levels down at Tosca, a modern Italian restaurant that was much more interesting than I had expected. Chef Pino Lavarra was born in Puglia and specializes in southern cuisine. His resume includes working with Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir au Quat'Saisons in England.
Lavarra stays true to his roots, using fine ingredients to produce plates of food that are beautiful and represent the best of Italy. Dishes such as his sea tiramisu of red prawns carpaccio, seared scallop, and parsley cream are worthy of two Michelin stars. (Tosca has only one at the moment.)
Tosca, Austin Road W, The Ritz Carlton; +852-2263-2263.
Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines