Hong Kong: A gastronomic getaway
Hong Kong mingles grittiness with fantasy, sophistication with earthiness - and Ferran Adria-style recipes with hawker-stall deliciousness. Needless to say, the food is wonderful. Service is brisk but friendly (especially by Chinese standards).travel Updated: Nov 20, 2011 02:19 IST
Hong Kong ain't what it used to be. Or so, nearly everyone will tell you. In the old days, it was at the edge of the known world. Go any further and you would drop off into the abyss that was Communist China. The Union Jack still flew. The streets had reassuringly pronounceable names. And the bars were full of English people with made-up plummy accents who were called FILTH ("Failed in London? Try Hong Kong") behind their backs.
Then Hong Kong went back to Communist China. And Communist China stopped being very Communist. The investment bankers and corporate hot-shots overflew Hong Kong on their way to the Continental mass of China, looking for deals. The Chinese created their own Hong Kong in the newly redeveloped city of Shanghai. Singapore offered itself as an alternative to all those people who loved the old Hong Kong but weren't sure what to do after the handover. ("We speak better English," said the Singaporeans. "And we are a lot cleaner." Both true, of course.)
And so Hong Kong plods along today, robbed of its historical and strategic importance, unsure of what the future holds, trapped forever in a cleft between Shanghai and Singapore.
But because I am too young to remember very much of the pre-handover Hong Kong, today's Hong Kong is the only Hong Kong I know. And no matter what they may say about its decline, I like it a lot.
The new Shanghai seems to me too much like a forgery: part real city that few Westerners (or Indians, for that matter) ever get to see, and part bright new designer-label city that looks as though it was dreamt up a decade ago by a dozen Western architects in the First Class lounge of some anonymous international airport (which it probably was...).
But Hong Kong mingles grittiness with fantasy and Occidental with Oriental in ways that few other cities can manage. It is richer, cleaner and better organised than Bangkok. And it is not as boring and antiseptic as Singapore.
After years of flying Thai to Hong Kong (very good and you can break journey in Bangkok, which is always a bonus for me) I flew Air India. You can say what you like but this was my second international flight with Air India in two months - the first was to Paris some weeks ago - and I am one satisfied customer. Yes, the food can be so-so and they can't be bothered to design a proper Club Class meal service (it all comes on a single tray, not course-by-course as in proper airlines) but the planes are new, the seats are comfortable, the crews are enthusiastic in a plumpish, vastly-experienced sort of way and the on-time performance was perfect. For the life of me, I can't figure out why more Indians don't fly Air India.
I stayed, not at the Mandarin, where I usually stay, but at the Conrad. This is a large modern hotel in Pacific Place, run by Hilton and rated by Michelin as being only slightly below Hong Kong's big three (the Mandarin, The Peninsula and the Four Seasons). I was surprised, at first, by the hotel's ranking. But having stayed there, I can understand it. Rooms are large and comfortable and while the service is not as stylised as the Mandarin or the Peninsula, it is much more efficient. You never have to wait for anything and nothing seems to go wrong. As Hilton plans to bring the Conrad brand (above a basic Hilton but below a Waldorf-Astoria in the current brand architecture) to India, this augurs well for the chain's massive sub-continental expansion plans.
I ate two outstanding meals. And one interesting one. The interesting meal was at Bo Innovation, a famous Hong Kong restaurant that is often written about in the global press because owner-chef Alvin Leung fuses myriad influences (French, Chinese, molecular etc) to create three daily show-offy menus consisting of a dozen or more small plates. (Iggy's in Singapore has the same idea - and the food is better than Bo Innovation's).
My menu had some hits: a Ferran Adria-style homage to dim sum consisting of a quivering, jelly-like long bao (a bun) with the flavours of bao but a totally different texture. There was intense pigeon leg with local mushrooms. And amazing foie gras served with an ice-cream flavoured with a local Chinese leaf(Sort of like a tamarind-ice cream).
There were some gimmicks - a bubbling milkshake-like drink with the flavour of preserved egg and pickled ginger. And the chocolate dessert was served with cold sandalwood smoke.
And there were some misses. A dish of red prawn with local noodles as re-interpreted by Alvin was boring. An attempt to recreate the flavour of chilli crab did not work. A pointless tomato dish was rescued by an accompaniment of jellied white tomato consommÃ© shaped into a marshmallow by the use of the chemical methyl-cellulose (all very Heston-Ferran in conception).
Overall, it was a good experience but one that did not come cheap. My menu cost HK$ 1,280 (around R7,000 or more). And that's without water, coffee, wine etc. On balance, you are better off in Singapore at Iggy's. Alvin Cheung has one Michelin star for Bo Innovation which, I think, is about right.
Yung Kee also has one Michelin star but I don't think anyone who eats there cares very much about the Michelin inspectors or their opinion. The restaurant, spread over several floors in the heart of Hong Kong island (Wellington Street), is an institution, famous all over the world for its roast goose. As Yung Kee seats 1,000 people at a time and each table is sold at least twice at every meal, I shudder to think how many geese have laid down their lives for the patrons of this place.
Needless to say (and I said this two years ago on these pages), the food is wonderful. Service is brisk but friendly (especially by Chinese standards) and though everybody raves about the goose, try the suckling pig. It is not very expensive either. You can eat well for HK $400 or less.
Both Bo Innovation and Yung Kee are world famous so it was something of a surprise to discover that the best meal I ate in Hong Kong was at a new, cheap restaurant in the basement of a shopping mall.
Anyone who reads a good guide to Hong Kong restaurants will quickly realise that this is a city of restaurant monopolies and chains. Any time a restaurant succeeds in one part of Hong Kong, its owners quickly open another branch in another part of town. Usually the food is as good at all branches. So, for instance, the popular Lei Garden Cantonese restaurant chain now has nine branches in Hong Kong. The food is virtually indistinguishable at each branch so the poor Michelin inspectors are left with no choice but to give one star to seven out of the nine Lei Gardens. (Hong Kong is possibly the only city in the world where Michelin gives so many stars to the same restaurant at so many different locations!).
The Lei Garden restaurants are good value (about half the price or less of hotel restaurants of similar standing) but the owners obviously decided that they wanted a younger, less affluent crowd.
So they opened Lei Bistro in the basement of the Times Square mall in Causeway Bay. This was the cheapest restaurant I ate at in Hong Kong (according to Michelin, it should cost under HK$ 100-150 per head but I ate the whole menu - on your behalf, of course, dear reader - so I spent considerably more). But it was also the best.
When I called to book, it took them a while to find an English speaker to answer the p