HONG KONG - Under the circumstances - increasing cultural competition from Shanghai and Singapore, general post-changeover anxiety and then the health scare with poultry - it would be downright impossible for the Hong Kong food arena not to be subjected to stress. Tourism, the locomotive for this island's hotel and restaurant business, is way down, and shows no signs of perking up overnight.
That said, the Hong Kong restaurant scene appears, on the surface at least, remarkably stable. Given the choice of spending a week in any Asian city to experience the glories of Chinese cuisine, I'd opt for a ticket to this gastronomic capital. Immense variety, experienced chefs and a well-heeled, well-informed clientele, all help make this an unbeatable food city. The only real downside is the decreasing availability of some choice ingredients - the finest teas and delicate Shanghai crab for example - as the increasingly wealthy mainland Chinese begin to limit exports to the island and keep the luxury goods for themselves.
Certainly the most exciting meal of the weeklong stay was at Dynasty, the elegantly comfortable restaurant in the New World Hotel. For those who think Cantonese food is the same old 20 greatest hits, think again. Chef Tam Sek Lun has been holding court at the Dynasty for 15 years and his maturity and dexterity are evident in every dish. He is known for his home-style Cantonese food (as opposed to dim sum or banquet fare), honest, warming, easy-to-love fare.
Who could find fault with the chef's steamed eggplant with preserved vegetables, a dish with unusually rich, smoky and earthy flavor, a properly bitter edge and lots of cabbage, a brilliant vegetarian substitute for the traditional pork.
His clay-pot rice dishes are worth a trip all on their own: Rice is cooked in covered, unglazed pots so the bottom layer crisps, making for fragrant, nutty, crunchy rice contrasting with the moist rice on the top. It's served with pork sausage and a blood sausage so sweet and dense it was like eating candy.
But I swooned over - and still dream of - his outrageously delicious baked silver cod, an offering of smoky, complex flavors with fat fillets marinated for four hours in a blend of Chinese wine, several different bean pastes, celery, lemon, chili peppers and ginger, then roasted in an ultrahot oven. The dish has it all - aroma, silken, soft and soothing texture, and that well-calculated balance of spice, fire and acidity. This intelligent, modern creation should quiet those who believe all Chinese cuisine is nothing but reworked old classics.
The elegance of the Chinese red-and-cream embossed menu and the teahouse decor with rosewood screens and antique ornaments are not at all at odds with the accessible fare, for the presentation is at once homey and stylish. A dish of steamed egg white with baby scallops, meat and vegetables was both creamy and ethereal, like reaching for clouds and dropping them in your mouth.
Desserts here are remarkably appealing: delicately sweet, baked honeydew melon puffs filled with a melon paste, like little presents of evenly balanced sweetness and acidity.
Next in line for most enjoyable fare in Hong Kong is the incomparable brunch-time dim sum at Victoria City Seafood Restaurant. This vast, and somewhat impersonal restaurant plopped in the middle of a huge office complex remains a mecca for those who want little bites of heaven to tide them over until the next good meal.
The dish of the day was the Shanghai crab roe dumplings, steaming hot and dripping with the brilliant saffron color of the rich roe, so sweet and pleasurable.
Traditional steamed fresh shrimp dumplings are classic and flawless, while the glutinous rice in lotus leaf is a hedonistic affair, a fragrant bundle of tightly compressed rice, all stick-to-your-teeth chewy and exorbitantly satisfying. Equally awesome were the Shanghai mince pies - flaky lard pastry that would make a French chef proud, filled with a delicious mix of moist and evenly spiced mincemeat and showered with a thick layer of crunchy sesame seeds.
Far less inspired this time around was the meal at the generally exquisite Lai Ching Heen, my hands-down Hong Kong favorite of the past. At the last meal at this exquisitely appointed dining room in the Regent Hotel, the earth moved. This time, it did not even tremble. Gone were the harmony and brilliance. One might chalk it up to a bad day in the kitchen, but the once brilliant deep-fried scallops with pear and water chestnut was lackluster, the baked, stuffed sea whelk in its shell seemed to have lost its reason for being, and other dishes - sautéed lobster, snake soup, deboned pink garoupa fish and beggar's chicken all lacked intensity and polish. Menus are planned according to the moon, so it may just be that Scorpios should have stayed away during that lunar cycle.
THE Regent kitchens redeemed themselves with a flawlessly fresh meal at Yu, the inventively simple all-fish restaurant with its turquoise aquarium, soft lighting and panoramic harbor view. What raw-oyster lover could resist a presentation that includes bluepoints from America, belons from France, Sydney rocks from Australian and Pacifics from Canada? Yu also offers a spectacular seafood platter that arrives as a conical mountain of crushed ice, with shellfish and crustaceans attached like rock climbers. Likewise, an abundant assortment of live fish and shellfish, from jumping shrimp to sweet king prawns to baby abalone to cherrystone clams can be served steamed, poached or grilled.
Hong Kong has its share of ''attitude'' and of the city's most steadfastly surly spots is the old Luk Yu Teahouse, where only local regulars are accorded courtesy. But force your way in the door (gently, kindly) and settle into a world of fading local history and dim sum dreams.
As slow-moving old ladies in faded chef's whites parade about with battered metal tins of steaming buns, one sips fragrant peony-blossom tea and witnesses a dying breed of Chinese men who spend the morning reading, ruminating, nipping at their tea. The dim sum selection is vast and varied - ranging from lotus-root puffs to pork ribs in barbecue sauce to glutinous rice in a lotus leaf - but they're heavier and richer than you'll find in other establishments. Go for the nostalgia and the 1930s charm.
Dynasty, New World Hotel, 22 Salisbury Road, Tsimshatsui, Kowloon; tel: (852) 2369-4111, ext. 6361; fax: 2734-6006. Open daily. Reservations necessary. All major credit cards. About 300 Hong Kong dollars ($39) per person, not including beverages.
Victoria City Seafood Restaurant, Sun Hung Kai Centre, 2F, 30 Harbor Road, Wanchai; tel: 2827-9938; fax: 2827-7218. Open daily. Dim sum, 22 to 30 Hong Kong dollars per basket.
Lai Ching Heen, The Regent, 18 Salisbury Road, Tsimshatsui, Kowloon, Hong Kong; tel: 2721-1211; fax: 2739-4546. Open daily. Reservations necessary. All major credit cards. About 400 to 500 Hong Kong dollars per person, not including beverages.
Yu, The Regent (see above); tel: 2721-1211, ext 2340; fax: 2724-3243. Reservations necessary for dinner. All major credit cards. About 600 Hong Kong dollars per person, not including beverages.
Luk Yu Tea House, 24-26 Stanley Street, Central; tel: 2523-5464. No credit cards. Reservations not accepted. Open 7 A.M. to 10 P.M. daily. 150 to 300 Hong Kong dollars per person.
Next week: Food trends in Asia.