How To Spend It

Food

Hong Kong supper stars

Michelin-starred meals for less than £10? Jonathan Margolis finds foodie heaven in the most unlikely places. PLUS: EXCLUSIVE VIDEO

September 27 2012
Jonathan Margolis

It goes without saying that meals at Michelin-starred restaurants tend to come with bills as starry as the food they serve. Even at one-star restaurants in London, you’re into the heady prices of the likes of Hakkasan (grilled Wagyu beef with enoki mushrooms, £61), Nobu (black cod with miso, £42), The River Café (Ligurian fish stew, £40) and Galvin at Windows (three‑course menu, £65).  

What if I said, then, that there’s a major city with Michelin-starred restaurants, where you can eat a meal for under £10, à la carte? It may sound unlikely, but in Hong Kong, the latest Michelin guide – the fourth to be published – has awarded the coveted star to a clutch of small restaurants the discerning foodie might otherwise pass by, from dim sum cafés to noodle shops and a curry house. These are not back-alley places, either. All are in pleasant, easy‑to‑find areas, with two in expensive retail locations.

Foodie sceptics may wonder if giving such restaurants a star is a stunt, an attempt to adapt Michelin’s famously demanding Gallic standards to garner press attention and please the locals. But when I contacted Michael Ellis, global director of Michelin Guides, he confirmed that Michelin insists the same exacting barriers must be scaled by a humble noodle shop in Kowloon as by any venerated restaurant in London, Paris or New York. That means multiple visits by multiple inspectors of different nationalities, followed by gruelling “star sessions” where all the inspectors gather to compare notes and decide who will gain, maintain or lose a star.

And having spent a gluttonous but glorious few days testing Michelin’s Hong Kong discoveries, I’m inclined to believe it’s true. Eating authentically and deliciously in Hong Kong without local knowledge – or Cantonese – is not easy. The beauty of these recommendations is that not only are you being guided to an excellent restaurant, but the owners – savvy to the pulling power of a Michelin star – will likely have printed an English menu.

I started out this odyssey with a taxi ride one evening to the further reaches of Mong Kok and a dim-sum house called One Dim Sum. I chose it because I wanted to love dim sum again, having become jaded with the world’s Chinatown offerings, many of which taste as though they are pre-packaged and just heated up. I’ve had some pretty dull ones in Hong Kong, too. And even though restaurants such as the Royal China Club in London have brought interesting new varieties to Britain, it’s been a long time since I’ve been thrilled by any.

One Dim Sum is at the bottom of an apartment block on a busy street, immediately under a nursery school. There was a small crowd outside, which was encouraging, but I was shown straight to a shared table in the welcomingly air-conditioned interior – it was still in the 30s and humid outside. (There are plenty of tables for two or four if you wait, but these are not the kind of places that take reservations. Be advised, we are talking adventurous and off-piste here, with quarters close and clientele mixed.)

My first surprise was that the menu turned out to be mostly familiar. Though there were a few exotic entries – ginger chicken feet or curry cuttlefish – I found many of the standards, including barbecued pork buns (cha siu pau), steamed prawn dumplings, rice-noodle rolls (cheung fun) and even deep-fried wonton in sweet-and‑sour sauce, which I have always been assured is strictly amateur-hour Cantonese for foreigners.

Second surprise: the gracious service and the welcoming fellow diners, even though the place was packed and noisy. Restaurants in Hong Kong are not exactly noted for being friendly, so having the waiter ask repeatedly if everything was OK and my tablemates express their delight that a foreigner liked dim sum was remarkable.

As I was curious to see the Michelin-approved spin on such ubiquitous varieties and because I saw the locals were happily tucking into them, I ordered the standards. A prawn in the fried wonton tasted as if it had been swimming that afternoon – a perfect sea-flavoured morsel to complement the crisp coating that shattered in the mouth. The steamed beef balls were pinging with a sesame-oil, coriander and citrus‑peel tang, and came with a vinegar that made them not just satisfying but vibrant. And the cha siu pau were bulging with succulent lumps of lean pork in a good, sour barbecue sauce. It’s a dish that often defeats the most upmarket dim-sum restaurants, but these were best of breed.

I finished with the dessert of the day – an ice‑cold, fresh-mango pudding roll sprinkled with coconut. I wasn’t the only one who nearly passed out with pleasure; the Chinese twentysomethings at my table, all regulars, were photographing theirs. The bill for five dishes, dessert and tea: $HK99, or £8. Tips are not required, which kept the total from going crazy. (Phew.)

The next day, my birthday, I invited a Spanish foodie friend, in town on business, to celebrate with me over lunch. What smart Madrid girl could resist a swish Michelin-starred lunch in Hong Kong? What I didn’t mention was that we would be catching the Star Ferry to Kowloon first, then rattling by taxi to Mong Kok to the most legendary dim sum joint in Hong Kong – Tim Ho Wan. Opened by chef Mak Pui Gor, previously at the Four Seasons hotel’s three-starred Lung King Heen restaurant, Tim Ho Wan is not in the chicest area, characterised as it is by a concentration of hobby shops and the attendant strange men who haunt them.   

The birthday-lunch plan went a bit wrong. It wasn’t that it was 40° – my friend regards that as pleasant weather. It was more the three-hour (no exaggeration) queue, which, in the steamy heat, made the scene outside Tim Ho Wan positively refugee-like. The restaurant suggested we try its other branch, 15 minutes’ walk away in Sham Shui Po, where there would only be a two-hour wait; or the new branch in Central, whence we’d just come, in the Hong Kong Station part of the IFC Mall. We trekked back disconsolately, imagining this spot would be even busier, especially on Friday lunchtime.  

The restaurant is too new to be in the 2012 Michelin guide, but some users of Hong Kong’s foodie websites, such as www.openrice.com, rate this place higher than the other branches. There was a five-minute wait in marble‑lined comfort, followed by a lunch so spectacularly fine, I went back three more times that week.

Three of the signature dishes I tried featured a whole new species of dim sum, not just an evolution. The baked (as opposed to steamed) cha siu pau was one of the most delicious foodstuffs I have ever tasted – domes of golden, buttery buns with an exquisitely porky interior. Then there was the leaf-wrapped glutinous rice, which can resemble a mulch of unknown meats – to be fair, it’s supposed to – but here was bursting with contents of a different order: pungent tea-infused sausage, rich pork belly, fresh shrimp, dried scallop and earthy mushroom. But it was the chicken that we both alighted on. It had the homely taste and juicy texture of top‑quality roast bird. “Wow, this is like kosher chicken,” I said, and there’s no higher praise – except perhaps my Spanish friend’s, that it was just like the chicken her mother makes in Madrid.

Tim Ho Wan’s pan-fried turnip cake, similarly, tasted of what it was supposed to – fresh, shredded turnip. I’ve been eating this dish for years without realising that it’s meant to supply much more than just bulk. The seared surface contrasted perfectly with the unexpectedly light, crumbly interior. And the dessert – tonic medlar and petal cake – was an extraordinary flower-flavoured jelly, with medlar (decayed rose apple, which makes the dish surprisingly sharp) and crunchy goji berries for texture and a little sweetness. The bill for two eating eight dishes in one of the world’s smartest malls was £14. I have heard of locals – expat and Chinese – who come twice a day.

That evening, I went to Hung’s Delicacies, a Chiu Chow café in North Point, on a street of car-accessory shops and hole‑in‑the-wall restaurants. Chiu Chow is a less well‑known Cantonese cuisine that relies more on the soy-sauce braising and poaching of meats than frying. Hung’s is perhaps the least user-friendly of Michelin’s starred finds, with a lot of dishes involving tongues, feet, heads, chins, intestines and ears. With a growing stream of socialites and gourmets visiting the tiny restaurant, founder and chef Lai Wai‑Hung recently opened a new branch at Hong Kong International Airport.

And Hung’s is adept at helping westerners choose the easier dishes and, as long as you like the occasional new flavour and texture, the quality of ingredients, cooking and presentation are more what you would expect from an upscale restaurant than from somewhere charging Hung’s typical £3 to £8 a dish. The first suggestion was marinated goose slices, which come as a mound of thin pieces of tender, juicy bird, each with a slim border of fat and skin. The goose is braised in a lo shui sauce, made from meat stock, soy, rice wine, scallions, ginger and star anise, and tasting sweet and salty. A pink fruity vinegar nicely balances any undue fattiness.

Another Hung’s signature – braised assorted vegetables with red marinated tofu sauce (Tientsin cabbage, soya stick, dried lily flowers, black fungi and mushrooms) – had a characteristic, faintly fermented, beery flavour from the tofu. This starts as a mild surprise, but becomes increasingly delicious as you get into it. Hung’s renowned Chua Lam’s lo-mein egg noodles are a dry, springy homemade delight to counterbalance the wetness of these dishes. Named after a famous Hong Kong food critic, they are cooked in lard, soy sauce, ginger, Beijing and regular spring onion and shreds of chicken and Chinese ham. They come with a separate ham-soup stock that you can pour over them or use as a dip. This richly flavoured meal in itself is how noodles should be.  

My most memorable Hung’s dish, however, was the one that looked and sounded the least appetising: vegetarian goose – a rolled up, flattened coil of thin, chef-made bean curd braised in the now familiar lo shui. As you pick up each cut slice in your chopsticks, it partly uncoils, and provides a pleasing, soft, multilayered contrast to the braised and crisp textures of the other dishes.

The next day, I went for Sunday brunch to Ho Hung Kee, a noodle shop in Causeway Bay, just by the Times Square mall, with an American friend, Jeff, and his colleague. Jeff, who is of Hong Kong Chinese descent, a major foodie and speaks Cantonese, took the ordering lead and veered off-road like a Land Rover to the Chinese-only menu, on which, he noted, everything was at half the already low prices. Jeff left me and his colleague to facile things like noodles with spicy shredded pork (delicious, shovel-it-in soul food), deep-fried wonton (even better and more sea-flavoured than at One Dim Sum and served in such quantity that they could have made a lunch on their own) and super-fresh bok choi in a sauce that was more oystery than expected. (Like everywhere else, they make the sauce with oyster essence but clearly use more, or better). Jeff, on the other hand, ordered little boat congee (rice porridge with peanuts, spring onions, cuttlefish, jellyfish and dried scallops) and his favourite beef-brisket noodle soup with extra tendon. The congee, while I’m not a fan of the snack staple, was exceptional, but I was as appalled by his tendon (refusing to try it) as he was by my shredded pork noodles. For a working lunch – or more relaxed supper – of extraordinary quality, Ho Hung Kee is a boon for westerners. The bill was £23 for three people.

What did Jeff make of the  place? “It’s extremely good,” he opined, “and I love the surroundings – like a Chinese take on an American diner. But the owners are aware that foreigners have discovered it.” He recommended going with a local because the real stuff – the dishes too off-piste for foreigners – is on the Chinese menu.

There are very few things you eat around the world that are so enjoyable you recreate them in your mind weeks and countries later and crave them daily. I’ve been emailing with my Spanish friend about Tim Ho Wan’s baked cha siu pau since our visit. I also daydream about the vegetarian goose at Hung’s and even Ho Hung Kee’s congee, if I’m very hungry. On my Michelin-inspired gastro-tour of Hong Kong, there were many more such memorable dishes and remarkable restaurant finds I’d recommend – especially the starred north Indian Hin Ho Curry, in Shau Kei Wan. Michelin has done Hong Kong residents and visitors a great service.