On my first visit to Hong Kong I dragged a few colleagues out into the evening heat for “proper Cantonese”. We went to a restaurant recommended by a friend whose reading matter clearly included TripAdvisor. Ignoring the ill-mannered staff and slight whiff of drains, we stared disdainfully at catering veg and long dead rubbery proteins drowning in gloop, before leaving.
You know those red neon-lit steak places around London’s Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square? The ones where credulous tourists force down questionable meat, wondering where the great British food revolution has gone and why their bill’s so high? Well, this was our exchange trip. We were those tourists. But that was before the arrival of Michelin man, who has scattered his stars around Hong Kong to guide us, and to which we shall return in a moment.
It’s possible to get ripped off everywhere, of course, but in Hong Kong courteous civility usually makes an appearance, except possibly in traffic, which has everyone honking. The newer forms of public transport are the way to go or, for fun at walking pace, the old “ding ding” trams, many of which originated in Glasgow. (Fact of the day)
On a recent visit, ten minutes after disembarking the plane at Norman Foster’s elegant, clean, efficient Chep Lap Kok, I was on the air-conditioned Wi-Fi-fitted Airport Express, quietly whooshing towards Hong Kong Station, a well-organized mass transit hub as good as Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof. Taxis may be plentiful and cheap, but the MTR (subway) is superfast and even cheaper. Everything is subtitled in English and it is insanely busy. All the time. Welcome to China.
Hong Kong Central is glitzy and prosperous, thanks to all that banking. Everyone wants to stay there, looking out over Victoria Harbour towards Kowloon’s rapidly developing shoreline. It’s better the other way round, looking back at Hong Kong Island’s spectacular skyline (there are only three places in the world where the pressure on space truly justifies skyscrapers: Manhattan, Chicago and here). The Kowloon Shangri-La Hotel does a neat trick with its panoramic, water’s edge views. On entering a dark bedroom, the curtains automatically pull back to reveal Central’s neon lit towers, complete with dancing reflections on the water. Wow Factor, box ticked.
The real estate prices are insane. I know one high-rise that became a shopping mall to save on ground rents, so trying to stay centrally is difficult. Early adopters first moved west from Central to Hollywood Road and its southern environs (SoHo, geddit?), where it is possible to live your entire life travelling to and from work/restaurants/friends by the world’s longest escalator. Artists and art galleries soon attracted higher rents (recognise the pattern?) and so the colonisation spread to Poho, Noho, PMQ and west along the Island Line MTR to Western District and Kennedy Town – all currently, for a few moments at least, among Hong Kong’s coolest neighbourhoods.
For visitors, this is where the new Jen Hotel is, a cool replacement for a tired old property, with slick young staff, superfast wifi throughout, a rooftop pool, spacious rooms and a reasonably priced but good Malaysian restaurant. Hongkongers now come to Western District for brunch at the weekend, inflating the student population of HKU, transforming the district’s mundane reputation but keeping the local shops and low-fi eateries. It’s an odd sensation to exit your hotel after a couple of days and unexpectedly find a popup street market on the doorstep.
The Jen’s rates are less than half of those found in Central. The MTR station is outside the door (the hotel also has its own five minute shuttle to/from Hong Kong Station) and a Club penthouse where morning snacks and evening canapes are thrown in. When I was there, most guests regarded this as free breakfast and full supper, with a grandstand view of the harbour thrown in for good measure.
I’ve only had one bad meal in Hong Kong, and that’s the one at the top of this article
The Jen’s dim sum is good, as you might expect, and their Malaysian restaurant serves Penang-style char kway teow followed by a delicious dessert made from durian, the fruit that stinks to high heaven but tastes divine. It’s on the Michelin bib gourmand wait and watch list but elsewhere in the city dim sum shacks have actual Michelin Stars, and the cuisines of South East Asia have arrived en masse to mix and match their noodles and spicy soups in vast steaming bowls of laksa, pho, ramen and hotpot. I’ve only had one bad meal in Hong Kong, and that’s the one at the top of this article.
The Michelin ‘stars’ of the dim sum world are One Dim Sum and Tim Ho Wan, the former a single outlet in Mongkok, Kowloon, which had a star for a year in 2012, the latter a chain spread throughout the city (the two branches with single star status are at North Point & Sham Shui Po) and beyond to Singapore and the Philippines. They’re very easy to find since star ratings, no matter how out of date, mean pavement queues all day every day, of at least half an hour. At 11am on a Saturday make that an hour. However for single diners this is not a problem. Tables for four, occupied by three people, have the empty seat soon filled by pushy staff shunting in lone customers – it’s very easy to make new friends in Hong Kong. You order food while waiting outside, filling in the standard dim sum sheet for what turns out to be, er, standard dim sum. It’s all good, very good in fact, with both establishments making their own dumplings fresh every day. Tim Ho Wan has its own social media hit, a BBQ pork bun, and both have superb selections of shrimp and barbecued pork dumplings, but both are surrounded by rivals who make their own har gau, cheung fun, and spring rolls too, which are possibly just as good and just as cheap, but without the queues.
What is outstanding are the new fusion dim sum places like Yum Cha, an ironic name from the original Cantonese generic phrase meaning “going for tea, with dim sum”, a bit like naming your café “afternoon refreshment and biscuits”. Its Central branch is more difficult to find, hidden on the first floor of a swishly converted redundant department store. Yum Cha has global Instagram hits – BBQ piggy buns and cute little hot custard and green tea molten buns, a strikingly similar note to the Pac Man har gau from Red Farm in New York – but all the dishes have been played with, enhanced, improved. Sticky honey balsamic wings are messy but delicious, requiring finger wipes throughout or a dexterity with chopsticks I do not possess; glutinous but naked vegetable dumplings are crunchily satisfying. It’s not expensive and not too difficult to secure a table, which means that return visits, time and again, to explore an extensive, original menu that takes in strips of peppered eggplant and dragon beard kale are in order. They don’t have a Michelin Star (yet) which calls into question how the whole star system works, both here and elsewhere (yes, Tokyo, we’re looking at you). How can less than a handful of inspectors arrive from France and suddenly judge an entire world city’s cuisine in a few weeks?
awarding near-mythical status to Formica-topped table cafes with express service remains a mystery to this diner
It’s easier to see in the Shang Palace, the Shangri-la Hotel’s two star Cantonese restaurant, whose rating is writ large in thick napery, discreet service, and menus that explore the diversity of Cantonese cuisine. Their double boiled “yellow melon broth” with shellfish is worth a star on its own, their delicately served, fragrantly perfumed tea menu more than ample replacement for wine.
But awarding near-mythical status to Formica-topped table cafes with express service (as in: get out as soon as you’ve finished), of a speciality available citywide, remains a mystery to this diner.
Sadly, what is disappearing, fast, are the old trolley service dim sum establishments, where (mostly) elderly ladies wheel round steaming baskets of everything on offer, filling in the dim sum chit once diners have made their choices. In London’s Chinatown the only two were the CCK in Wardour Street, now closed some time ago, and the New World in Gerrard Place, which only wheels them out at weekends. In Hong Kong, The London, apparently run by returnees from London, has them all day every day, as does the more ancient Lin Heung Tea House. The critical difference in Hong Kong is that diners don’t politely wait for the trolleys to come to them; they attack the trolleys as they appear from the kitchen, grabbing the best baskets and racing back to their tables to feast hungrily. It takes some getting used to.
And no, they don’t have Michelin Stars. C
The writer flew with Virgin Atlantic which has a daily service between London and Hong Kong on its new 787 aircraft