Friday, August 22, 2014

Hong Kong food - the lowdown from the locals

It had been seven years since my last trip to Hong Kong and twenty two since I first stepped foot there to begin my first job out of college.  This time around, we were blessed to have old friends who lavished us with treats to their favorite food haunts.  It was a contrast to my fledgling days when I was consumed with shopping; and hiking the majestic mist-covered mountains that lace Hong Kong.

The famous roast goose at Yung Kee Restaurant. 
First stop on Friday evening was to revisit Yung Kee Restaurant with my kids.  Famous for its roast goose, I had stumbled on it while strolling with a friend during the very first trip to HK for my job interview.  Not realizing that it was quite an institution, we appreciated the moist goose and standard Cantonese fare.  This time around, the restaurant did not look or feel any different from the first time I fell in love with it.  Time had stood still.  The goose was predictably succulent though not the very best one could possibly have.  Yet, it felt like a warm welcome home to a familiar place.

The next morning, an old friend booked us all a table at the HK Jockey Club, no longer with its Royal prefix.  The ambience resounded with the family gatherings that yumcha sessions are associated with.   We had nine adults and six children of which the youngest lay napping on a chair in the corner.  We were plied with an endless array of dim sum as we lingered and chatted until 3.30pm.

Hustling about in Central, my husband and I finally found the secret hideaway of a dining club come evening time.  As a testament to how unplugged I was during my early days there, I did not even know or hear about the existence of the Shanghai Fraternity Association.  It had been established by the Shanghainese tycoons who had fled communist China and taken along with them their best and favorite chefs.  The location became a meeting point to dine on their old favorite dishes while wheeling and dealing  and re-establishing themselves in their new haven.  That was its history but now, coveted membership attracts many non-Shanghainese like my friends who want exclusive access to authentic food.

My friends ordered Shanghainese dishes that I had never quite seen before, despite my six month sojourn in Shanghai.  The fish cooked in a sweet wine reminded me of a dish served to Nixon when he visited China.  (See Nixon's Chinese Banquet). The club was decorated plainly and reminded me that with old billionaires, less is more.

Fish at the Shanghai Fraternity Association
This stood in contrast to our next stop.  The China Club atop the old Bank of China building is redolent of 1930s Shanghai with its Art Deco fixtures, and objets d'art.  With a singer in the dining room, you could close your eyes and imagine. It would have appealed especially to the Occidental traveller with the fantasy fetish for that glamorous time and place.  Over drinks in the beautiful library wallpapered with Chinoiserie bird motif (perhaps de Gournay) with matching lamp stands and overhead lamp shades, we discussed the merits of Lung King Heen.  Both sets of local friends (lunch and dinner) had all been there.  It is after all, the only 3- Michelin star-rated Chinese restaurant in the world.  But I could tell that their deep knowledge of extraordinary cooking meant that they had dined at even better places.

The interior of The China Club. 
Since we were staying at the hotel where the restaurant is located.   I felt that I needed to experience it to judge it for myself.  I couldn't exactly tell my friends that I had this "die die must try" compulsion.  It had been terribly difficult to secure any table of any size for any meal over the course of our stay.  But on Sunday, on short notice, we unexpectedly had a space for my family of four and we proceeded to order items off Chef Chan's recommendations.   I would have liked to taste some of the more exquisite dim sum creations except that my daughter has nut and shellfish allergies.  Some of the memorable things we sampled included:

- Barbecued Suckling Pig - delicately crispy skin
- Braised Asparagus Stuffed in Bamboo Piths with Assorted Fungus and Tofu - light as air, the tofu melts in your mouth
- Beef Cubes sauteed with Mandarin Peel - moist meat and punches of flavor

By evening time, my friends who had taken us to the Shanghai dining club, invited us to venture on a tram ride down to Sheung Wan to one of their current favorite spots.  They kept forewarning me that it was a 'hole in the wall' with 'no tablecloth'.  When we got to that humble outpost, the wife promptly began dipping the chopsticks in a glass of hot tea and swirling the bowls and cups in an even larger bowl of hot tea to sterilize the utensils.  But the food that came was amazing.  Perhaps the fiery roar from the wok in the kitchen added to the senses.  Infused with the breath of a wok and glazed with such tantalizing flavors to the palate, the spare ribs, ginger chicken and clay pot fish head tasted so delicious.  Every morsel was appreciated.  I only had to trick my son that he was having 'Chinese fish and chips' and he gobbled up half of the small whole fish fritters.

Superb glazed pork ribs at the 'hole in the wall'.  Name withheld for two reasons:
Cannot read complex Chinese characters, and want to keep this gem a secret. 

The breath of a wok
The next day, we squeezed in twenty minutes for wonton noodles and a bowl of congee at the Tasty Restaurant on the 3rd floor of IFC, before hopping on the swift Airport Express.  Tasty was another one on my "die die must try" list because it was featured in the Michelin Guide.  I'm such a tourist.  The congee of pork and egg was sublimely smooth, almost creamy.  Quintessential HK congee.

Tasty Congee
Maybe the kids didn't get to see or do much else in HK, but they were exposed to some of the best Chinese food we've had in a long while, and an appreciation for the finest in the cuisine of their heritage.  All thanks to some of the most discerning connoisseurs we proudly know.  This last visit to Hong Kong made me realize that while much of the atmosphere has changed after 1997, the food there is still great like it's always been, if not better.

Yung Kee Restaurant
32 Wellington Street,

Lung King Heen
Four Seasons Hotel, Hong Kong
8 Finance Street,

Tasty Congee & Noodle Wantun Shop
3016- 3018
International Financial Center
Hong Kong

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