HONG KONG - With Hong Kong at the helm, all of Asia is witnessing a new era in cuisine. From city to city, the young, hip and modern diner is finding a deluge of restaurants especially created for youthful tastes and styles.
The handover of Hong Kong to China in June inspired a flock of restaurants that scream MODERN with giant capital letters: Out with giant banquet-style dining halls, fluorescent lights and red flocked wallpaper; in with intimate salons, halogen track lights and clean, white minimalist walls.
The biggest revolution here is taking place in what the locals now call SoHo, for south of Hollywood, in the Lan Kwai Fong district in central Hong Kong. While the aromas of Stanton and Elgin streets used to be ink and furniture polish, the air is now filled with the scent of freshly roasted coffee, garlic, tacos and beer.
With names such as Nepal (with Himalayan yak's cheese for dessert), Desert Sky (with Persian carpet place mats), Club Casa Nova (fresh potato gnocchi), Sherpa (Himalayan coffee) and Caramba (Mexican tacos and beer), the culinary revolution is a sign that young Hong Kong residents want more than dim sum and Peking duck. They also want the Western lifestyle and all that goes with it. They want cafés where they can hang out all day with a cup of java, and they have it with Staunton's Bar & Café, with its open feeling and giant glass windows onto the street. When they do go Chinese they want it to be retro, like the Red Star Café with its own beer and Mao-era posters of blue-clad revolutionary workers.
Hold the Substance
They want everything that they consider cosmopolitan, youthful and a bit bohemian. And in weight-conscious Hong Kong, they want food that has more style than substance.
Wherever I went in Asia, the trend among the thirtysomethings was clear. Vegetarianism is on the rise, and many restaurants have a ''no red meat'' policy. Red wine is the drink of the moment (Bordeaux, please, preferably top vintages and preferably rare). A whole new style of tea shops - offering extensive and rare collections - caters to the young and well-heeled. Juice bars are the rage, as people pause for such elixirs as carrot, parsley and spinach juice ''for twinkling eyes, vitality, great teeth & gums, good circulation, better digestion and Vitamins C and E.''
There is at last a resurgence of interest in Southeast Asian food, as Thai and Vietnamese restaurants (largely ignored in Hong Kong for years) appear with SoHo's Wyndham Street Thai and Vietnamese Café du Lac.
American-trained chefs with an Asian bent are also flying high in Asia. The French-born Jean-Georges Vongerichten (with Asian-French restaurants in New York and London), has opened another Vong in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. In Singapore, the American-born chef James Chew (who trained at Stars in San Francisco and Vong in New York) oversees Brewerkz, a splashy microbrewery and restaurant modeled after those in America.
There are, of course, inconsistencies and contradictions. Take a look at the menu of the sleek, cool, chic Joyce Café with three addresses in Hong Kong and others throughout Asia. Decorated in black-and-white photographs of Hong Kong's markets, and clean lighting, the cafés are magnets for those who want to see and be seen. The menu is largely Asian, with a Salad Kyoto that combines crab roe and king crab leg, lemon zest, cucumber and avocado and fragrant shiso leaves.
dessert binge Sensible enough. But only so one can go wild on desserts: Such as a warm phyllo tart of figs and berries topped with walnuts and strawberry ice cream. Or dark chocolate and marmalade fudge cake with King Island cream.
And then there is the fusion craze. Or too often, confusion. I have to ask, with all the complexities, intricacies and wonders of Asian cuisines - whether it be Japanese, Chinese, Thai or Vietnamese - why dilute the power and pleasures with willful Westernization? They call it an attempt to combine the best of food from around the world into a single cuisine. But who in his right mind would order Lobster Nachos with Boursin Cheese, Asian Tomato Relish and Guacamole? Or Spicy Gazpacho with Black Truffles. Or Wasabi Mousse with Oscietra Caviar and Shiso Potato Chips.
All these, and more, are found on the menu at Felix, the ultramodern, ultra-trendy and frankly beautiful Philippe Starck-designed restaurant atop the newly renovated Peninsula hotel. What happened, I wonder, to the chef who felt he had a responsibility to his diners as well as the ingredients to honor both the dish and the diner?
HOTELS throughout Asia have been quick to catch on to the youthful appeal of multiple cuisines. At Raffles in Singapore, the already popular Doc Cheng features not only a mix of Asian and Western fare, but specially designed dining utensils, one end is a fork or a knife, the other a chopstick.
In June, the Hyatt Singapore hopes to open Mezza9, an atmospheric, jazz-enhanced dining room with no less than nine show kitchens, featuring everything from European deli fare to a sushi bar, open Chinese kitchen, a walk-in wine cellar and a martini bar and cigar room. Everything but a place to park the kids.
Next week: Thailand