During my last trip to Hong Kong three years ago, I found myself sitting down and smoking cigars with chef Alvin Leung. We puffed, we chatted, we sipped some scotch — and the conversation invariably turned to food. Considering that Leung is the force behind Bo Innovation, a Michelin three-star restaurant that is famous for its one-of-a-kind, molecular Chinese cuisine, asking him for a dining recommendation made sense. But first I had to brag, telling him that I’d be supping that evening at one of the top Cantonese restaurants in town.
When he heard where I was going, though, he registered disappointment. Between pulls on his cigar, Leung opined, “For that sort of meal, you really want to go to Lung King Heen in the Four Seasons Hotel. It’s got three Michelin stars and is known for being the best Cantonese restaurant in Hong Kong.”
Unfortunately, it was my loss: I was flying out the next day and my dinner plans couldn’t be changed. That’s when I promised myself that on my next trip to Hong Kong, I’d do things differently. I’d tap the city’s best chefs for their top dining choices. And, of course, I would belatedly take Leung’s advice.
In front of the Four Seasons on a cloudy afternoon, there is a bit of a kerfuffle. Paparazzi elbow for photographs of Benigno Aquino, president of the Philippines, who is in town to smooth out a controversy with the Hong Kong government. Minutes after his arrival, as I sit down for my long-anticipated lunch at Lung King Heen, I see Aquino and his entourage entering the sleek wood-and-glass dining room. They proceed to a private enclave in back, but I know their meal won’t be better than mine.
It starts with perfectly delicate soup dumplings; then comes pan-seared grouper spiced up to taste like the southwestern offspring of Chinese parents and, in a city where roasted pork reigns ubiquitous, a superior version in a buttery pastry shell exudes French élan.
The mastermind behind the meal is chef Chan Yan Tak, who imparts Chinese dishes with European technique. Tak’s fried risotto epitomizes his open-minded approach. “I’m always thinking of how to apply other foods to Chinese food,” he says. “[For the fried risotto,] I was flying on a plane and eating Italian rice, which I really like. I wondered, why not use it for fried rice in Hong Kong? Then I did.”
My lunch is fairly massive, and all told, it would be easy to skip dinner, but I’m here to experience the best food in Hong Kong, and passing up a meal is not an option — plus, I lack the strength to resist yakitori gizzards, chicken necks and wings. Yardbird, the place where I’m going for it all, is also supposed to be one of the hottest joints in town, packed nightly with Hong Kong hipsters and their casually gorgeous girlfriends.
When I make my way there that evening, I grab a perch at the bar, where cocktails tend to be spot-on (the Jolly Rancher, made with shiso-infused shochu, is no exception). Before long, the guy next to me inspires an order of chicken oysters.
Eventually, Yardbird’s acclaimed chef, Matt Abergel, a Chinese-food obsessive from Calgary, Canada, buzzes by. He has promised to take me to his favorite foodie haunts the next day, and over a nightcap he tosses out a verbal itinerary for our outing. Afterward, as I make my way back to my room at the Mira Moon Hotel, a beautifully appointed, high-service boutique alternative to the Four Seasons and The Peninsula, I make a mental note to skip breakfast.
It’s a good choice. Locally caught, the sea creatures burst with fresh and tender meat inside partially cracked shells that practically shimmer with smears of light pink. The sauce, made with chicken fat, generously covers the crabs and provides a perfect counterpoint of flavor. “Schmaltz!” Abergel says as he swirls the shellfish around in the golden-brown nectar. “You’d never think it works with crab, but it works perfectly.”
Perhaps forgetting that we still have three restaurants to hit, he then orders The Chairman’s platter of spareribs with preserved plums in caramelized black vinegar — and this is nothing like the stuff that comes in a bag from my local Chinese take-out. When Abergel asks if I can handle it, he makes the question sound more like a challenge. Of course, I say yes.
After devouring the plate of ribs, we head off to Chachawan, a funkily designed Thai joint that Abergel often frequents for lunch. While our journey requires an inclining stroll, it doesn’t really do enough to burn off The Chairman’s calories, and I arrive feeling stuffed — but I vow (silently) to soldier on.
Housed in a long and lean space, Chachawan specializes in dishes from northern Thailand. In an efficient manner, the counterman takes our order and quickly produces plates of minced pork with fish sauce, pounded green papaya with chili peppers and sweet-and-sour duck. “What I like about this place is that they keep it simple,” Abergel says as chefs stir and chop and sizzle just a few feet from us. “Nobody’s trying to reinvent the wheel — though they did have to tone down the spice. When Chachawan first opened, people complained about the heat level.” Popping a spicy green bean into his mouth, he adds, “Now they have it just right.”
Our quick taste of Chachawan underscores the beauty of Hong Kong dining. While a couple of courses at The Chairman ran in excess of $100, the Thai food here costs just a fraction — and both were terrific.
Leaving Chachawan, Abergel leads me through a series of congested streets teeming with office workers out for speedy lunches. After passing a few restaurants that look fairly identical, he opens the door to Sister Wah, which serves noodles the old-fashioned way: prepared by a couple of guys in a glass booth, accompanied by a bowl of meat. You mix it yourself, jazzing the whole thing up with spoonfuls of chili oil. Warm water is free, cold water you pay for — and if you want a napkin, your waiter will sell you a pocket-size pack of tissues. It’s about as delicious and as gourmet as you can get, in the simplest of surrounds.
We make it about halfway through our noodles before we cry uncle and admit that we’re gluttons, too full for the last stop on our itinerary. But Abergel suggests popping in anyway. On the cab ride over, lurching through midday Hong Kong traffic, talk turns to an Italian place called 8 1/2 Otto E Mezzo Bombana, where I’m heading that evening. After all I’ve heard about it, I can’t help but wonder how authentic an Italian restaurant in Hong Kong could really be. Abergel assures me that the chef, Umberto Bombana, is the real deal: “He looks like Santa Claus, and his food is great.”
Abergel’s last pick of the day is a sort of fish-and-chips spot called Fish & Chick, with rotisseried chicken stealing the spotlight. It’s a charming place, with friendly girls behind the counter and a ground-level view of Victoria Harbour. The chicken smells delicious, but I settle for a draft Tsingtao — I figure I’ll make my way back here at some point, and I still have an Italian dinner to face. (I do eventually return, and it doesn’t disappoint: The chicken is crispy and juicy, thanks in part to butter slipped under the skin before it was cooked, and the chips will make you homesick for your favorite frites joint.)
Clearly, he is a man of good taste, and when he offers me a plate of seafood pasta, I can’t say no. As bread and a glass of Italian chardonnay are set out, I wonder how a world-class chef from Italy manages to snag three Michelin stars in Hong Kong. “People want the food here to be authentic — they demand as much — even though ingredients come from all over the world,” he explains, ticking off an international shopping list. “My food is Italian in concept but global in fact. We spend money on ingredients, and our finished seafood dishes taste like the Mediterranean.”
When the waiter brings out a bowl of homemade cavatelli, swirled up in a light tomato-based sauce loaded with lobster, crab and urchin, I taste the sea and feel transported. If the ingredients came from everywhere but Italy, fine. I’m not complaining.
Just before leaving the United States for Hong Kong, I heard about a dim sum restaurant called Tim Ho Wan, which ranks as the least-expensive Michelin-starred operation in the city. When I mention it to chef Tak, back at the Four Seasons, his eyes light up. Restaurant owner Mak Kwai Pui was once Tak’s right-hand man. He knows all about Pui and clearly respects what he is doing, so I decide this will be my next stop. More importantly, though, Pui will be my next tour guide.
Upon entering Tim Ho Wan, in the center of a hectic, working-class neighborhood, the first thing I notice is that it’s the polar opposite of a white-tablecloth joint like The Chairman. In fact, it has a locals-only vibe, with the menu all in Chinese, a bustling wait staff and cacophony for days. The second thing I notice is that near the window, a corps of dim sum makers fold, spindle and lovingly manipulate thin sheets of rice dough into little food packets loaded with flavor. Clearly, it’s the food that earned the star.
As much as Pui loves dim sum, even he can’t survive on it 24/7, so he offers to take me to a couple of his favorite neighborhood spots. First up is Kwan Kee Bamboo Noodles. It’s a small but comfortable place that provides a good counterpoint to Abergel’s top noodle spot. Here the noodles are made from wonton dough, hand-pulled by a couple of guys in orange polo shirts at the front of the restaurant. The noodles have a satisfying chewiness to them, braised beef enriches the broth, and a sprinkling of pork/prawn wontons, well, they’re pretty much the bomb.
What amazes Pui — and what makes this his go-to noodle house — is the way everything works together. “You have to realize that each element has its own cooking time,” he says. “Yet, nothing is overcooked or undercooked. That’s tough to pull off. They start with the noodles a little crispy so that they don’t get soggy. Then the wontons need to be tied just right. Too tight and they don’t open; too loose and you have a mess of ingredients all over the place.” While eating the stuff, it’s easy to take all this for granted, but, as with most tricky things made to look easy, that’s the point.
We finish up with a stroll to Kam Wah Cafe, which needs no introduction from Pui. The sweet smell of baking goods assaults my senses as soon as I enter the bowling-lane-shaped restaurant, illuminated with fluorescent light and a bit riotous on the noise scale. But nobody’s in here for quiet chatting or a flattering photo — not even the young woman behind me, munching a hunk of fried chicken and smiling like crazy as I snap an iPhone pic.
At Pui’s insistence, we eschew the savory and go for the overriding sweet. In this case? A pineapple bun, which looks and tastes nothing like a pineapple. It’s actually a warm pastry, soft and sweet and loaded with butter — “It must be hot enough to warm the butter but not so hot that it melts,” offers Pui — topped off with a skim of caramelized sugar.
Several nights later, more or less recovered from my mad descent into chef-driven cuisine, I return to the scene of the crime: Bo Innovation, the restaurant owned by Alvin Leung, who initially set me off on this idea of eating like a chef in Hong Kong. The crowd is tony and the food is outré by design. Sitting at a dining counter that looks into the kitchen, I work my way through combinations such as foie gras with Korean miso and toro sashimi exploding with umami. Knowing I wouldn’t be seeing Leung tonight, I came equipped with a Cuban cigar of my own, figuring it’d be perfect for a post-prandial stroll.
Three-quarters of the way through dinner, my waiter hops over and hands me a cordless telephone. It’s Leung, calling from Toronto. “You enjoy your meal? You having a good time in Hong Kong?” he asks.
“The meal’s great,” I tell him. “And Hong Kong has been terrific. I took your advice.” I’m greeted by silence on the other end of the phone line.
“I ate at Lung King Heen, in the Four Seasons,” I explain. “And I asked a couple of other chefs for their recommendations — and followed them.”
Leung still doesn’t seem to understand. But that’s OK. I don’t need him to confer approval on my dining choices. I just wish he could have been along for the ride.
Michael Kaplan is based in Brooklyn, N.Y., and has written for Wired and The New York Times’ T Magazine, among other publications. In the wake of his Hong Kong food odyssey, he’s enjoying a serious obsession with XO sauce.