Hong Kong presents a particular challenge: it is the city in the world where I am least likely to see (or be able to parse) a menu and, as a consequence, least likely to order a single dish. I end up with many, in the selfless interest of our readers.
Whenever I visit, my Chinese friends know that they will be my conduit to insider restaurant knowledge. Every meal has been arranged before I catch the plane. My friends pose questions – “Cantonese or Shanghainese? Informal or formal?” – to which my response is invariably the former, in both instances. It is at this stage, however, that I begin to be marginalised.
On my first night I found myself ringing the bell of the Southbank private kitchen and going up in the lift of a building that houses offices during the day, but whose fourth floor, by night, becomes a restaurant under the renowned chef Ah Tak.
Little has changed since I first ate here in 2006. The lighting is harsh, the exposed ductwork gurgles away, and on this occasion an airconditioning unit blasted cold air on to my left shoulder all evening.
Just as before, two lugubrious waiters served a succession of Cantonese delicacies – double- boiled chicken soup, “crystal prawns” and a small crab shell full of baked crab meat that had Chinese and western heads around the table rolling their eyes with pleasure – all without a word of explanation or a menu. I left extremely well-fed but with what I can now recognise as incipient menu-deprivation.
I didn’t believe that this would be the case on the second night, when we headed out to Kin’s Kitchen in Tin Hau to meet a Chinese woman, now married to an English banker, who is so decisive I have taken to calling her “Boss”.
But on the threshold of the ground-floor restaurant, about whose menu I had heard so many good things, we were promptly escorted round the corner and up a flight of stairs to the first floor that now serves as its private kitchen.
On the table were the details of what was to be our nine-course dinner. As my hostess sat down next to me, she confessed: “I was going to pre-order just one dish, but then I thought I would let the chef choose it all.” This time there was a menu, but I was still a spectator.
Whatever disappointment I may have felt was soon negated by the appearance of Lau Kin Wai, who has inherited the hospitality trait from his restaurateur father. Dressed in chinos and T-shirt and sporting a stylish haircut, Wai skipped between our table of six and the table of eight Australians next to us like an enthusiastic schoolteacher.
Over the next couple of hours he explained the dishes: a duo of stuffed and sautéed prawns, a recipe that dates back to the 1950s; a pigeon, slow-cooked for two hours before being deep-fried and then served with plastic gloves for eating; and drummer fish, served whole and simply steamed, that he had selected himself that morning.
Most unforgettable was the second course of double-boiled soup with slices of pork, ginger and what was described as vintage tangerine peel. When we all raised our eyebrows at the delicacy of this dish, Wai disappeared into the kitchen and returned with a plastic container full of dark-brown tangerine skins that he claimed were 55 years old and replete with medicinal properties. Whatever their long-term effect, this was one of the most fascinating and delicious soups I have ever enjoyed.
I finally got my hands on a menu only hours before I left when I sat, along with a couple of enthusiastic food bloggers and Susan Jung, my counterpart at the South China Morning Post, at a corner table at Manor, Causeway Bay.
This restaurant’s somewhat incongruous reputation as an excellent seafood restaurant that also serves one of the very best renditions of suckling pig was matched by its location and interior. Manor is right by a noisy flyover, while inside full bottles of expensive brandy and a beer fridge stand next to empty bottles of first-growth claret and opposite a fish tank.
But I was there to be introduced to Manor’s roasted “gold coin” chicken – a delicious sandwich of slices of pork, chicken, pork fat and taro, all wedged between two thin slices of bun. The first person to finish promptly described this as “a cholesterol sandwich”. I enjoyed mine immensely, along with the other dim sum. On the way out, I have to confess, I stole the paper menu.
Fourth Floor, 4 Pottinger Street, Central
9 Tsing Fung Street, Tin Hau, +852 2571 0913
G/F Lockhart House , 440 Jaffe Road, Causeway Bay, +852 2836 9999