On the foodie trail in Hong Kong

  • Vir Sanghvi
  • Updated: Sep 10, 2016 22:16 IST
Eat high, eat low. But you will always eat well in (Getty Images)

The call came early one evening. It was Meanne, the Island Shangri-La’s Director of Communications. There was a typhoon on the way. The Met Office was about to raise storm signal 8, which was the third-highest category. It was not safe to leave the hotel. There would be gale-force winds and the rain would be heavy enough to flood parts of Hong Kong.

Having been brought up in India where natural calamities are a part of life, I was not particularly worried. It was only when I went down to the Pacific Place Mall, attached to the hotel, that I began to get concerned. The shops were closing early to allow the staff to get home before the typhoon struck.

I went on the Internet. Hong Kong airport was shutting down. Upto 150 flights from Hong Kong had been cancelled. Arriving flights were being diverted. Buses and trams would go off the roads. Offices and schools would remain closed.

I looked out of the window. There was no rain yet. The wind was normal. But the sky was an angry gray. Even then, I saw no reason to cancel my dinner booking at 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana. Then I discovered that, in typhoon-type conditions, taxis would either refuse to ply at all or would rip you off.

A little defeated, I called Otto and changed my booking to the following day. I booked Petrus instead, the hotel’s French restaurant.

We ate very well. Petrus lost its Michelin star when the old chef departed but his successor, Ricardo Chaneton, who joined four months ago, should easily win the star back. His food was light and delicate and Yohann Jousselin produced some extraordinary wines for us to try. The staff though, were nervous: how would they get home when the typhoon struck?

The Island Shangri-La doesn’t have the air of exclusivity that the Mandarin cultivates. But it is far, far better run (Picture courtesy: The Island Shangri-La Hong Kong)

We were on dessert when the Island Shangri-La’s General Manager dropped by to say hello. I asked Franz Donhauser, if he could see the typhoon approaching. “No,” he said. “It seems even clearer than normal.”

By the time we got back to our room, absolutely nothing had happened. So had the typhoon changed course? Had it missed Hong Kong? Had we panicked unnecessarily?

On the grounds that I was unlikely to be in Hong Kong during a typhoon again, I stayed awake and stared out of the window. And sure enough, an hour later, the action began. Strong winds made everything shake and heavy rain lashed the skyscrapers around the Island Shangri-La. I watched, fascinated, thinking: this is a city that has been built to withstand typhoons. By tomorrow, we will learn that there has been no real damage.

I was wrong. But only slightly. Late the next morning, when I woke up, it was still raining but the typhoon had passed. However, trees had been uprooted, areas had been flooded out and all boats/ferries remained off the water and the airspace was free of all planes.

And as for my scepticism during dinner at Petrus, well,what I had seen was the embodiment of that old cliché: the complete stillness before the storm.

Hong Kong never fails to excite you. Every now and then, there will be a typhoon or something like that to throw you off your stride!

But, in other respects, it remains broadly the same. The last time I was here a few years ago, I wrote about abandoning the wonderful old Mandarin where I usually stay and defecting to the Island Shangri-La.

Luxurious and efficient: The Island Shangri-La doesn’t have the air of exclusivity that the Mandarin cultivates. But it is far, far better run.

This time too, I stuck with the Shangri-La. It is a large hotel so it doesn’t have the air of exclusivity that the Mandarin cultivates. But it is far, far better run. You call for laundry to be collected and the guy is at your door even before you’ve put the phone down. The food (except for dire room service, alas) is excellent and best of all: the Shangri-La is cheaper than the Mandarin despite delivering an experience that is as luxurious. (Cheap is relative: Hong Kong hotel rates are on par with London or Paris.)

Hong Kong is packed out with Michelin three-star restaurants though I don’t necessarily agree with the selections. I don’t think Joël Robuchon’s L’Atelier deserves more than one star (but Michelin worships Robuchon) and as for the gimmicky Bo Innovation, it does not deserve any stars at all.

But there are other great names. The city’s most famous restaurant, Amber, regularly tops foodie lists (it is number 4 on the Asia Top 50; number 20 on the world Top 50 etc) but has only two Michelin stars. I went for dinner to see who was right: Michelin or the Top 50 lists.

Amber is at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental; its hotel origins never forgotten because screaming children from next door ran through the restaurant the night I was there. The serving staff were nice but seemed curiously down at heel for such a super-expensive restaurant.

I liked the food – my wife was less enthusiastic – because I thought it showed flair. Foie gras came in a dashi-type Japanese broth bursting with umami flavour. A Japanese sea bass (Amadei) was first roasted and then deep-fried on the outside so that the scales were crisp. Only the Miyazaki beef represented a murder of expensive ingredients. Though I was assured that it had only been seared, it had the wet bath-sponge texture that normally comes from sous-vide or bad oven-roasting.

On the plus side, the Chinese sommelier, King, was outstanding and the new manager, Laurent Chevalier from Ducasse in Tokyo, looks like he will kick some ass and get the front of the house into order. Till then, two stars seem about right.

There are other Michelin two-star restaurants in Hong Kong. At my own hotel, there was the Summer Palace which served terrific Cantonese food to a roomful of mainly wealthy and discerning Chinese guests. It was also where I met the Shangri-La’s Anurag Bali.

Anurag used to be one of a group of brilliant Taj chefs – his contemporaries are Ranveer Brar and Kunal Kapoor. But while the other two found fame and fortune on TV, Anurag moved from the kitchen into the conceptualising of restaurants. At present, he is Director of F&B for the Shangri-La’s New Projects Division, which means he plans the restaurants at new Shangri-La properties. This is an unusual position for an Indian to hold in a global Chinese company and just shows you how far the new generation of Indians have got in the global hospitality business.

I found another example when I finally got to 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana, the only Italian restaurant outside Italy to get three Michelin stars. There, manning the bar, was Devendra Kumar, formerly of Rick’s at the Taj Man Singh and at Ellipsis in Bombay. Devendra is widely regarded as one of Hong Kong’s best mixologists. Umberto Bombana, the chef-owner, told me that Devendra is his star.

A touch of sophistication: Umberto Bombana, the chef-owner at the 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo Bombana, is Hong Kong’s king of truffles.

I loved Otto. It is deceptively simple and warm, but is actually an immensely sophisticated Italian restaurant with food that relies on the best ingredients. Chef Umberto is Hong Kong’s king of truffles and in our summer, he sources them from Western Australia, where it is winter now.

I ate a beef tartare with truffles, tagliolini with truffles and beef short rib, followed by a technically perfect Limoncello Souffle. It is not difficult to see why Bombano has three stars.

That leaves Chinese food. I ate at the Michelin-starred Peking Garden (nice) and at the highly praised Mott 32 which does modern/trendy Chinese food. It was a bit hit and miss and I didn’t think they were doing anything that the likes of Hakkasan had not done before in London.

My best meal in Hong Kong came from an insider’s tip. The Editor of this paper, a champion foodie who has actually lived in Hong Kong several times (including a spell as Editor of Time International), mailed to say that I should go to Social Place.

I had never heard of it nor was it prominently featured in any guide. But I respect Bobby’s judgement and went anyway.

I was gobsmacked.

It is a huge, functionally designed restaurant hidden away on a higher floor of an office building. You tick the dishes you want from a menu slip (most of the servers only speak Cantonese) and I ordered nearly everything I could (except for the pigeon which they had run out of). All of it was sensational: silky shrimp and pork dumplings in a soup, sliced aubergine with minced pork, beef brisket with spices, Sichuan fish poached in chilli oil, ‘chicken and egg’ – except that the eggs were made from mango – and more.

The best dish comprised chunks of Wagyu beef quickly stir-fried with cucumbers and wasabi peas. I don’t think I will ever forget the taste!

If you have time for one meal in Hong Kong, this is where you should go. And it isn’t expensive. Despite ordering so many dishes and beer, our entire bill for two was only two thirds of what Amber had charged for a single dish – its Miyazaki beef. (And the beef here was far better!)

But that’s Hong Kong. Eat high. Eat low. But you will always eat well. And they may throw in a typhoon or two!

From HT Brunch, August 14, 2016

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