Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 23, 2017
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Hong Kong tang

The ex-colony's restaurants heat up with cutting-edge cuisine and Qing dynasty classics

Pssst: the Dragon has awakened. As recently as a decade ago, cooking in China still hadn't recovered from the maelstrom of 20th-century history. Hong Kong stood unequalled as the foodie capital of the Middle Kingdom.

Not any more: a new generation of chefs has returned the People's Republic to ancient glory as one of the world's greatest food destinations. Now the question is, how does Hong Kong maintain its gastronomic groove in the Dragon's wake?

Hong Kong gastronome and bon vivant Billy Mark responds with a cautious optimism: "Yes, we're facing a huge challenge from China," he says. "But we're still sophisticated and cosmopolitan. We have the international vision. We're the meeting point of all the Chinese cuisines from Cantonese to Sichuan, not to mention world cuisines like Italian and Indian. And because of troubles in recent years, our restaurants have learned to care about the customer. We're really much better because bad things happened to us. This gives us an edge."

It's no secret that Beijing plans to sideline the former British colony in favour of home-grown Shanghai. Yet in spite of Shanghai's sweeping advances, Hong Kong is clearly determined to hold its ground, or lose as little as possible. The city's middle name is resilience, and it shines on every front, from tourism initiatives to bold architecture that is transforming the skyline yet again.


Europe on a Plate
The always-trendy restaurant in town is Spoon (18 Salisbury Road, Kowloon; tel: 011-852-2721-1211; www.hongkong-ic.intercontinental.com) in the InterContinental Hotel, with its defining Victoria Harbour panorama. Spoon is one of seven such restaurants around the world established by nine-Michelin-Star chef Alain Ducasse. The concept is built to travel: streamlined French cooking stressing high-ticket ingredients in modest portions.

The restaurant exudes glamour from the celebrated skyline view to velvet banquettes with mink cushions. Its ceiling is a panoply of 550 hand-blown Murano glass spoons. Appointments are uniformly chic. All that's incongruous is the head-banging music. If Spoon's priority is to please the Cantonese, why the racket?

Dinner may launch with an amuse bouche of foie-gras custard; now that sets a tone. Among starters, Chilean sea bass and Alaska black cod appear to have been caught this morning. Keep in mind that Yu, arguably Hong Kong's finest fish restaurant, is just upstairs.

Wagyu -- Australia's answer to Japan's Kobe beef, with cows massaged daily and fed on beer -- has the texture of butter. Beef cheeks, all the rage, arrive absurdly tender and succulent and sauced in black truffle. For dessert, pine-nut ice cream prevails.

Hong Kong does Italy proud, too. Over at the Ritz-Carlton, Toscano (3 Connaught Road Central; tel: 011-852-2877-6666; www.ritzcarlton.com/en/Properties/HongKong/) has been pleasing the city for years with Florentine surroundings, effusive service and the northern Italian cuisine of Umberto Bombana. The chef's best dish may be a starter: the warm salad of scallops and scampi napped with Sevruga caviar. Scampi consommé with seafood and green-pea ravioli fuses Italian and Chinese (Chitalian?) smartly. Among mains, both seared grouper cradled in zucchini flower and pinkly roasted duck breast are sure bets.


Some Like It Hot
But if the Cantonese like their cooking subtle, outsiders may prefer more spirited Asian. Head for the south side of the island, shop for a bargain at Stanley Market and lunch at Sukho Thai (Level 2 Stanley Beach Villa, 90 Stanley Main Street; tel: 011-852-2899-0999), one of a kickline of international restaurants revitalizing a formerly dull strip of beach. Sukho Thai isn't content to be good at what it does: it shares the building and its menu with Saigon. The Vietnamese pho lover slurps a wonderful beef broth piled high with thinly sliced beef and rice noodles, roaring with sweet basil, star anise and cinnamon. To finish? Iced Vietnamese coffee, the reason God created condensed milk.

For six decades, Hong Kong Central's four-storey Yung Kee (32-40 Wellington Street, Central; tel: 011-852- 2522-1624; www.yungkee.com.hk) has performed as a Cantonese banner-carrier. It has icons: shark's fin and bird's nest -- the Emperor's New Clothes of Chinese cuisine. It has signature dishes: crackling won tons stuffed with minced pork hint at deep-fry heaven. Pork arrives in the style of crispy-skinned duck, alternately crunchy and fork-tender, savoury-and-sweet. And zapped with five-spice, roast leg of lamb morphs to a Cantonese classic.

But you don't need a glittering emporium to eat well in Hong Kong. Start your day at Law Fu Kee (50 Lyndhurst Terrace, Central; tel: 011-852-2850-6756) in Central, an amiable hole-in-the wall specializing in congee, simmered-to-velvet Chinese rice porridge laced with ginger and spring onion.

Condiments range from shredded pork to fish head; as with pizza, you design your own. Arrive early enough, and you'll see family members shaping shrimp dumplings by hand and prepping noodles in a flurry of flying fists for the lunch trade.

Signalling a wave of independent entrepreneurs revitalizing the restaurant business is MoonGarden TeaHouse (5 Hoi Ping Road, Causeway Bay; tel: 011-852- 2882-6878), a cheery room in Causeway Bay. Its specialty is 125 desserts, some from the Qing Dynasty, some medicinal, others great fun. Who can resist iced peach tea or mango-and-pomelo soup, the silky sweet mango playing off the tart pomelo? Or the contrasting flavours and textures of green bean and tofu pudding? It does, however, seem possible to resist pancakes and puddings of Southeast Asia's pungent durian fruit.


Think Small
One of Hong Kong's most impassioned gastronomes is Chua Lam, Renaissance man and food anthropologist. His career has vaulted from producing Jackie Chan films to writing over 100 books on subjects from wine to women.

In recent years, he's godfathered Whampoa Gourmet Place, a "court" of excellent Chinese restaurants in Whampoa Plaza on the Kowloon side. Lam found the space, rounded up his favourite 14 small restaurants and persuaded them their collective clout might be their individual redemption. The idea seems to have worked: ask the lineups.

The restaurants here -- Sichuan, Shanghainese, Mandarin, Taiwanese, seafood -- cover the spectrum. Quality and price controls are rigidly enforced. Take-out is forbidden because Chua feels it damages the restos' reputations, and he's right.

At the Tasty Congee & Noodle Wantun Shop (Whampoa Garden, Kowloon; tel: 011-852-3152-2328), fish congee begins with a base of shredded scallops and when it arrives at the table, a fork might stand up in it. Noodles get a lift from spicy shredded pork and piquant soy bean paste. Rice noodle roll stuffed with Chinese fried bread sounds like a starch sandwich, but it's shockingly good. Beef brisket is tender enough for the toothless. Barbecued pork is out of this world.

For those who like fire with their noodles, join the queue for Sichuan sizzle at Wing Lai Yuen (Whampoa Garden, Kowloon; tel: 011-852-2320-6430; www.winglaiyuen.com.hk) in the same complex. The owner's great-great-great grandfather was a cook in the Imperial Court. Paper-thin sliced pork sauced in soy, onion and chilies -- an award-winner -- sends the roof of your skull into lift-off. Scrambled egg whites tossed with shredded scallops and vinegar seems an oddity, but it's delicious. Desserts represent the court of the Dowager Empress. She wasn't very sweet and neither are they.

If Sichuan was home cooking for Deng Xiaoping, Hunan was the same for Mao Zedong. At Hunan Garden (The Forum, Exchange Square, Central; tel: 011-852-2868-2880), Hunan's hot-and-sour packs the room with enthusiasts. Handsome in pink and green with subdued lighting in Central's Exchange Square, it encourages long, slow lunches. "Sea blubber" and braised mutton paw may fail to arrest the gwai lo (Cantonese for "foreign devil") but shredded potato with green and red chilies is a knockout. Chicken drizzled with whole Hunan chilies might sizzle your lips in a fly-past. Hunan ham and preserved meats render fried rice sumptuous and scrumptious.


DIY Dim Sum
Meanwhile, at the Peninsula Hotel, the in-house "Academy" verses guests in the craft of dim sum. Maestro Yip Wing Wah bemusedly imparts technique and wisdoms on making feathery shrimp-and-chive dumplings, and takes you touring roomfuls of barbecued ducks, suckling pigs and marinated pigeons.

The Peninsula's Spring Moon (Salisbury Road, Kowloon; tel: 011-852-2920-2888; www.peninsula.com) is arguably the finest Cantonese in Hong Kong. This is one of Hong Kong's most quietly stylish rooms, with gleaming hard wood floors, rich carpets, an exhibition of historic teapots and vintage photographic prints of Hong Kong.

Tea is taken as seriously as wine here -- the list is 30-strong -- and lunch may begin with an elite, aromatic Dragon Well green tea from Hangzhou. There are delicate little puff pastries stuffed with barbecued pork and levitating dumplings. Barbecued pigeon marinated in cinnamon is dense and gamey, but the skin deliciously crispy.


Hong Kong a-go-go
We flew Cathay Pacific (tel: 800-268-6868; www.cathaypacific.com) direct from Toronto to Hong Kong. Cathay flies from Toronto daily, and twice daily from Vancouver to Hong Kong.

For more information contact, the Hong Kong Tourism Board (tel: 416-366-2389; www.DiscoverHongKong.com/canada).

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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