Highs Notes and Low Notes in Hong Kong

HUTONG - Local critics denigrate the new, trendy restaurant Hutong, saying that it’s a place for the view but not the food. Since I don’t live in Hong Kong, I feel that I can disagree. The view is spectacular, even if you are not eating, but the food plus the view makes 2 plus 2 equal 10.

There’s a lot of attitude here, for sure, from the time you call. It’s the old New York City trick, offering either a table at 6 PM or 10 PM. Who wants to eat then? After a bit of insisting, you get your table at the hour you want it. And once you arrive, the attitude calms, and if you are five or six diners, as we were, you are ushered to a private room, with a spectacular view of the harbor and all the lights of the grand high rise buildings, and you feel, already, as though you’ve paid the price of admission, and are content.

Sitting there, drinking a very crisp and very chilled French Chardonnay from the south of France, we feasted on some spectacular and super spicy fare: The two best dishes of the evening were a first course dish of razor clams in a spicy sauce, the best razor clams I ever tasted, except at the hands of chef Joel Robuchon. They were moist, meaty, festive and fun to eat, whole morsels of protein and denseness, good.

We ate a lot of dishes that night, from lobster to chicken, crab to shredded pumpkin and potato, but the other best dish of the night – no contest here – was the crispy de-boned lamb ribs. Hold your breathe here, these are fatty ribs, but the kind of fat you want to wrap your mouth around, chew and digest, inhale, adore. A new dish, something we are not familiar with, something we can think about going home and making: lamb, spice, moist, fun.

Throughout the evening , we felt part of the restaurant but not too close, part of the city, but not too close. This is the magic of Hong Kong, for you are a member of the club, but also apart from it all.

28/F One Peking Road
Hong Kong
Telephone: 3428 8342
Email: huntong@aqua.com.hk
Web: www.aqua.com.hk

Open daily. All major credit cards.
Highs Notes and Low Notes in Hong Kong

VICTORIA CITY SEAFOOD - Ten years ago, when I was assigned to judge the world’s best restaurants – 10 top tables and 10 casual dining spots – the welcoming Victoria City Seafood was near the top of my list of casual eateries. After a recent midday feast at this bustling Chinese banquet-style restaurant in an aging shopping mall, I’d still put it up there. The restaurant never disappoints, and makes us all fall in love once more with the delicate, sophisticated, easy to love flavors and textures of Chinese fare.

While you pursue the varied menus here – I always go for the extraordinary dim sum – take notice of the warm, crispy, deep golden miniature fried fish, with just the right amount of salt to stimulate your appetite.

As ever, I had to stop myself from ordering a second bamboo basket full of my favorite of all dishes here, the moist, Shanghai-style hairy crab dumplings, so fragile that the waiter escorts each tender morsel from steaming basket to white china bowl, allowing each diner to douse the feather-like dumplings with the rich, fragrant, gingered vinegar. The dumplings burst in your mouth, ooze with delicate but determined flavor of the seasonal crab, creating a sort of festive party in your mouth.

Colors, flavors, textures here are varied, from the tiny deep-fried vegetarian spring rolls, all crispy and golden, and minute enough to pop each morsel in your mouth in the daintiest of fashions. The warm, egg-shaped steamed vegetable dumplings were exquisite, an artful mix of perfectly diced bits of mushrooms and water chestnuts, made me happy that I was not in the kitchen laboring over these elegant morsels. I was perhaps most surprised by the mild, silken steamed rice rolls (more like rice powder crepes) rolled like a cigar --- here a blend of dried diced scallops and shredded ham -- and arriving layered topped with a rich and elegant XO sauce. The Shanghai-style Yellow Bridge Pastry arrived like tiny sesame-topped hamburger buns, only more elegant, a yeasty warm bun stuffed with tender bits of well-seasoned minced meat.

Victoria City Seafood never disappoints, and since the big round tables are always packed with families covering multiple generations, the energy of the room will carry you along all on its own.

Victoria City Seafood
2/F Hung Kai Centre
30 Harbour Road
Wan Chai
Hong Kong
Telephone: 2828 9938

Open daily. All major credit cards.

BO - It’s been at least 10 years since I’ve been in a restaurant that was preceded with such a hype and offered so little. Bo – also known as Bo Innoseki – is the unrivaled restaurant of the moment in Hong Kong, touted by international critics as the El Bulli of the Asia, in reference to the unparalled Spanish restaurant north of Barcelona. Such comparisons are a bit like saying that Kentucky Fried Chicken is on par with a restaurant run by Joel Robuchon.

Rather than the adjectives of “dazzling, innovative, and creative” I would say “unsophisticated, bland, just plain weird, and 100% self-delusionary.”

Bo fits the Hong Kong classification of a private club, meaning its health standards are less strict that a bonafide restaurant and hours are regulated and shorter. Some call them speakeasies, restaurants that are run out of a private home, often by well-known chefs. You enter Bo from a dreary alley, walking up the two damp flights of stairs, entering into a room that looks like it was put together five minutes before. The decorator sort of forgot to visit, as did the chef, the maitre d, etc. I don’t doubt owner Boris Yu’s intentions, but I do doubt his touch with reality. He truly believes the hype, and thinks he’s just on the coattails of an El Bulli. I am sorry, but the exhausting multicourse sampling of tiny dishes out of shot glasses and tiny Chinese cups, small plates and bowls were without class, style, meaning, or flavor. We moved from a clam topped with spicy tomato jelly and a fuyu (Chinese preserved bean curd) foam, that looked and tasted as though it was a five-year old child’s first effort in the kitchen; on to a pineapple foie gras ravioli with a bourbon sauce. Do you need to read further? Do you have indigestion yet? A lot of fuss with flavor, a lot of big talking with no foundation. The much-touted wine list offered few choices and no bargains, and the cold, modern, loft-like dining room with only three of a dozen tables taken on a weekend evening, made me sad indeed. What’s more, a white truffle menu that cost $100 US dollars included two paltry white truffle offerings, each with no more a few specks or slices of the fragrant mushroom. What’s that about the emperor’s new clothes?

Bo (also known as Bo Innoseki)
2/F T.M. Leung Building
16 Gilman’s Bazaar
Central, Hong Kong
Telephone: 2850 8371
email: dine@boinnoski.com
web: www.boinnoseki.com

Open daily. All major credit cards. 700 HK truffle menu.

RESTAURANTE ESPACO LISBOA - It’s not often that one gets a chance to travel from Asia to Europe in a single hour’s shot, but if you catch the ferry from Hong Kong to Macau, you can pretty much find yourself moving from the land of dim sum to the land of salted cod cakes and flaming chorizo sausages, in the name of the appealing little Portuguese spot known as Restaurant Espaco Lisboa.

Here, down a small side street off the quiet Macau fishing village of Coloane, you’ll find a bustling little restaurant offering rustic, robust, authentic Portuguese fare in a cozy setting. The wine list here is extraordinary, and you can count on the outgoing director/executive chef Antonio Neves Coelho to guide you through the wine list as well as the appealing menu. At a recent lunch, we feasted on paper-thin slices of their pata negra mahogany-toned smoked ham, along with tender fried codfish cakes and can’t stop eating them slices of rich, smoky, salty Portuguese sausages – courico assado na canoa – that had been dramatically flamed in a ceramic gratin dish, all right for sopping up with the delicious Portuguese bread.

Our main course of traditional Portuguese duck rice --- arroz de pato `a portuguesa – was elegant in the heartiest of senses, chock full of rich flavor and chunks of extraordinarily sweet and tender duck.

Mr. Coelho and my dining friend collaborated on the wine choices, including two outstanding, little-known reds, a 2001 Quita de Vale Meao Douro, an exotic, full-on red wine made in the steep hills of the Douro, the home of the famed Port wine. Here, five of some 90 grape varieties were selected to make table wine in place of port, a success I’d like to see, hear, and taste more of. Likewise, the choice of a pure syrah Quinta do Monte d’Orio 2000 was ideal, beautifully complimenting the rustic duck with rice.

Restaurante Espaco Lisboa
Rua das Gaivotas nr 8 r/c
Coloane, Macau
Telephone (853) 88 22 26

Open daily. All major credit cards.

SWATO FAT CHIU CHOW - If the Chinese love their dim sum by day, those with a bent towards the fish-based, earthy Chiu Chow fare – from the coastal region around the Shanton district of Guangdong Province – like their late-night snacks. For those in the mood for a simple, earthy, honest little meal with the locals of the Kowloon district near the old airport, then wend your way there and plan on a mini-feast.

Nothing here is in written English (though several workers speak and understand) so at Swato Fat you may need to resort to the old “point and eat” method of dining. As you enter the restaurant along a market street full of blazing colored neon lights, you’ll almost trip over the makeshift fish market set up outside, as several dozen Styrofoam boxes serve as fresh, bubbling, holding tanks for the fresh fish and shellfish.

Inside, the place is full of tables of locals as well as a growing number of Koreans and Japanese travelers who have discovered the popular eatery and here food literally flies from table to table. There is an open kitchen, miniscule but efficient, with numerous woks, deep fryers and stock pots going full blast, and a tiered buffet of the night’s offers, ranging from fish to meat, shellfish to vegetables, hot pots, to all manner of dumplings.

My all-time favorite Chieu Chow specialty remains their rich, moist, delicious goose preparation: the whole goose is braised in a vibrant broth of soy sauce, rice vinegar, ginger, star anise, cinnamon, scallions and lemon peel. The meat is then cut into generous, bite-sized pieces and each morsel is dipped into a pungent sauce of garlic and rice vinegar. In this simple, Formica-tabled setting, you could close your eyes and imagine this dish being served in the grandest of style. It has flavor, elegance, simplicity, and soul.

And the feast goes on: There’s a lively soup laden with chopped fresh celery, soothing preserved cabbage, soft and pungent bits of pork belly, and lots of black pepper for that added spice and tang. A marvelous clay pot filled with giant chunks of cabbage, dried mushrooms, and sweet carrots in a deliciously aromatic broth. Delicate dumplings, beggar’s purse style, arrive with a finely minced filling of water chestnuts and soft, pink baby shrimp. The only dish here that disappointed were the scallion dumplings, too big and too greasy to be pleasing.

Swato Fat Chiuchow Restaurant
60-62 South Wall Road
Kowloon City.

TAI WOO - Should you find yourself suffering from jet lag, can’t sleep and are hungry in Hong Kong, then head over to the Cantonese seafood restaurant Tai Woo in Causeway Bay. Open until 3 am, this bustling, banquet style restaurant offers some truly wonderful fare. If I could return for just a single dish here, it would be their breaded and deep-fried oysters, giant specimens garnished with plenty of smoky bacon and eaten wrapped in a fresh lettuce leaf. The single dish – you’ll no doubt need to halve the oysters to manipulate them – offers every manner of gastronomic pleasures, hot and cold, crunchy, soft, and salty. I didn’t want them to end. But end they did, followed by a pleasantly sweet sesame chicken dipped in ginger oil, and deliciously textures deep fried bean curd served with a red and spicy dipping sauce. Starters of chilled baby cucumbers from Taiwan were so crunchy and delectable, we ordered second portions.

Tai Woo Restaurant
27 Percival Street
Causeway Bay
Telephone 2893 0822; 2893 9882
fax: 2891 9564.

Open Daily until 3 am. 10 am to 3 pm only.

LAW FU KEE NOODLE SHOP - After a tour of Hong Kong’s outdoor street markets – despite the ever-dwindling size and ever- plasticized wrappings – tuck into a noodle shop for a breakfast of congee, the popular Asian soup rice mix that comes with a choice of condiments. A friend and I shared a warming bowl of the soothing, steaming mix of brothy rice that had been simmering in the compact open kitchen of this famed little no frills shop. We opted for the “do it yourself’ version, which means that a bowl of liquidy, alabaster rice and broth arrives, with a side dish of accompaniments of your choice. We ordered a mix of slivered raw fish, sliced before our eyes, garnished with ginger and pungent scallions, then drizzled with oil. We slowly added the fish and garnish, stirring them into the warm rice mixture, making for a super-fresh, just cooked breakfast that kept us going well into the afternoon. After 11 am, order their selection of noodles, barely cooked, with a touch of spring onions, the way the Cantonese like them.

Law Fu Kee Noodle Shop
50 Lyndhurst Terrace
G/F, Central, Hong Kong
Telephone 2850 6756