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Hong Kong and its romance with good food

In the last few years, Hong Kong seems to have become sedate. Less flashy than Shanghai, not so designer-label conscious, it even has a vaguely tasteful, old-money air about it, writes Vir Sanghvi.

brunch Updated: Apr 19, 2014 18:02 IST
Vir Sanghvi

U nless you are very young or have no interest at all in international affairs, you probably have some recollection of the Handover. This occurred in 1997, when the British finally returned Hong Kong to the Chinese at an elaborate function where the last colonial Governor (or “the Fat Imperial Oppressor” as the state-controlled Chinese media called him) Chris Patten said his formal goodbyes while his daughters wept and the royal yacht Britannia waited to take British officials home to their own country.

All of us believed then that even though the Chinese had promised to respect Hong Kong’s special status, these promises would be forgotten in a decade or so, and the former Crown Territory would become just another Chinese city. Well, guess what? We were wrong. Against all expectations, the Chinese have kept their word.

I go back to Hong Kong every couple of years or so to find out if things have changed. Well, they have. But not in the ways we had imagined. In 1997, nobody took Shanghai seriously. Hong Kong, with its glitz, glitter, ostentation and multi-coloured dragons, was seen as the epitome of Chinese-style conspicuous consumption. The people were brand-driven and designer-crazy, we said. They only drink XO Cognac because it is so expensive. They love showing off their wealth. And so on.

But now that Shanghai has blossomed, Hong Kong seems positively sedate. It is much less flashy than Shanghai, not so designer-label conscious and – who would have thought it? – even has a vaguely tasteful, old-money air about it. The Hong Kong Chinese are still aggressive, but they seem refined and restrained compared to the visitors from the Mainland who line up, shoving and pushing, outside the city’s designer boutiques.

Read:Hong Kong: A gastronomic getaway

Slow and Steady: Hong Kong seems to have become sedate, less flashy than Shanghai, not so designer-label conscious.

One thing that has not changed after the Handover is Hong Kong’s reputation for food. Foreign chefs have flocked to Shanghai but the best international food is still to be found in Hong Kong. Partly this is because taxes are low – it can be prohibitively expensive to source luxury items in China – and partly it is because old-money Hong Kong is a lot more sophisticated.

On the mainland, they spend lots of money on big-name wines (Château Lafite is the Big One) without actually understanding wine. In Hong Kong, tastes are more sophisticated. The manager of a Michelin two-star restaurant told me that the biggest challenge was to surprise his wine-loving guests, many of whom had cellars at home which were more exhaustive than restaurant cellars. Of course, two Michelin stars in Hong Kong doesn’t necessarily mean very much. When the red guide first arrived in Hong Kong (after causing a splash in Japan and ignoring the rest of Asia), its arrival was greeted with much excitement. There was some controversy when both its three-star restaurants were at the same hotel (The Four Seasons). But now the guide provokes less comment, though I’m not sure it’s necessarily a reliable indicator of where to eat.

A good deal: The Island Shangri-La has large, comfortable, sun-filled rooms and efficient service. The overall experience was quite superior (Photo: Getty images)

I usually stay at the Mandarin in Hong Kong but this time I tried another hotel as well before moving to the Mandarin. There were no surprises at the Mandarin, which remains as reliable as ever, but I have to say that I thought the Island Shangri-La was the better property: large, comfortable, sun-filled rooms, efficient service, a Michelin-starred French restaurant and two Michelin stars for its famous Summer Palace Chinese restaurant. I managed to get a good rate (much less than the Mandarin cost) and the overall experience was far superior.

Hong Kong is not unlike India in the sense that many of the best restaurants are at hotels. The Four Seasons still has three stars for the Chinese Lung King Heen (though the French Caprice has been knocked down to two). The Landmark shopping complex attached to the Landmark Mandarin Oriental is home to the Hong Kong outpost of Joel Robuchon’s L’Atelier which, bizarrely enough, also has three stars even though the Ateliers are to Robuchon what Emporio Armani is to the real thing. I had dinner there and though the old Robuchon standbys (the mashed potato, the black truffle tart etc.) are faithfully recreated, it struck me as being no better than any L’Atelier anywhere in the world (and the Monte Carlo version is far superior) so it is a mystery to me why Michelin gives it three stars.

I have been to Bo Innovation, a gimmicky modern oh-so-witty restaurant before. The last time around, I wrote that its single Michelin star seemed fair enough. Now, to my astonishment, even Bo Innovation has three stars. Either the restaurant has really upped its game or Michelin’s standards are slipping.

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The Mandarin has three Michelin-starred restaurants of which I tried two. The Grill has tried to go all fancy (it had a star even when it was simpler) with limited success. There were truffles everywhere: in the amuse-bouche, in the sauce for my steak (the beef itself was indifferently cooked, I thought) and even in the chocolate petits fours. The cooking was okay without being great, service not as personalised as it used to be and the soufflé tasted only of egg. I think they are lucky to hold on to their solitary star.

Pierre, on the roof of the Mandarin, is the Hong Kong branch of the great French chef Pierre Gagnaire’s empire. It has two stars but was, I thought, vastly superior to Robuchon’s three star L’Atelier. Ingredients were treated with flair and respect: new season’s French asparagus, delicately flavoured New Caledonian shrimp and a version of the classic Rum Baba that knocked Alain Ducasse’s more famous interpretation out of the window.

Two Chefs, Two Tastes: Pierre (left), on the roof of the Mandarin, is the Hong Kong branch of the great French chef Pierre Gagnaire’s empire. It has two stars but was, I thought, vastly superior to Joel Robuchon’s three-star L’Atelier. (Photo: Getty images)

But the best meal I had in Hong Kong was also the cheapest. Lei’s Bistro in the basement of the Times Square Mall is packed out with Chinese people (I was the only non-Chinese there) and the staff struggles with English. It has lost its Michelin star, but the food is still amazing: crispy roast pork, chicken in a Hunan sauce, French beans with minced pork, braised spare ribs, shrimp in a sauce made from the yolk of duck egg, spicy cucumber and a whole aubergine in a minced pork sauce. All this for half the price of a starter at the Mandarin Grill.

For the second part of my Hong Kong trip, I was the guest of the jeweller Nirav Modi who had invited me to the Sotheby’s jewellery auction. I’d made the same trip nearly four years ago with him for another auction so I had a rough idea of what to expect. If you’ve never been to a modern auction, it is a little like going to one of those auctions we see in the movies: auctioneer, gavel, and a room full of bidders. But modern auctions combine all this with a call centre. A huge bank of telephones is manned by Sotheby’s staff who take bids on the phone. All the big bidders only seem to bid by phone so we never actually get to see them.

Glittering Art: Nirav Modi's (above) aim is to become Asia's first globally respected luxury jeweller.

I was curious to see what had changed in the last four years. Actually, very little. The auction was as I remembered it but the only difference was the way Nirav was treated. The auctioneer read out Nirav’s name while describing the provenance of a necklace with the same awe he reserved for Cartier, Bulgari or Van Cleef & Arpels. The staff of Sotheby’s jewellery section fussed over Nirav like he was a VIP and after the necklace was snapped up for over `40 crore, Nirav and I went out for dinner.

Four years ago, at a similar dinner, Nirav had told me that he wanted to emerge as a global jewellery brand of consequence. At that stage, he was not very well known in India so I listened politely. But in the intervening period, he has grown his brand spectacularly (a Delhi store opened a month ago) and is halfway to reaching his goal: a situation where people buy a Nirav Modi piece for the craftsmanship and brand value alone, not for the value of the gold and the diamonds.

Globally, he has already made that jump. His necklace sold vastly in excess of the value of the metal and stones it contained because people wanted a Nirav Modi piece. Now Nirav is planning bigger things. Having triumphed at the Hong Kong auctions he wants to conquer the West. By early next year, he says, he wants to open stores on Old Bond Street in London and on Madison Avenue in New York. His aim is to become Asia’s first globally respected luxury jeweller.

Can he do it? Judging by the manner in which the Sotheby’s team fussed over him in Hong Kong. I’d say he is on his way.

From HT Brunch, April 20
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