As I walked into the M Bar on the 25th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong at 6.45pm, I spotted my friend sitting at a corner table, a glass of Krug champagne by his side. A minute later I was reaching for my notebook and pen.
This had nothing to do with what had been said but with what I had just witnessed. Realising that what I needed to stave off jet lag was a Bloody Mary, my friend raised his hand to attract a waiter’s attention. The raised hand was noted, reciprocated and, in seconds, a waiter was with us, eager to take my order.
My host smiled. “I’ve been living here for 20 years and I still think this style of swift service is the defining aspect of being in Hong Kong,” he said. “No other city I have ever been to can match it.”
What’s more, this level of service has been maintained despite the huge number of restaurants opening in parts of the city where you could barely find anywhere to eat just a couple of years ago.
Over dim sum the following morning at an old favourite in Stanley Street, Luk Yu Tea House, Fergus Fung, editor of the Word of Mouth restaurant guide, cited the suburb of Tai Hang, once home to garages and car mechanics, as the latest new restaurant hub. There had been so many openings in the past year, he added ruefully, that keeping up with all of them had been almost as exhausting as living with his three-year-old twins.
Our 48 hours in Hong Kong, timed to coincide with the FT’s wine gala for the Room to Read literacy charity, barely gave me time to move outside the Central district. But after dinner at a new restaurant, modestly entitled The Boss, I became aware that it takes more than scurrying waiters to generate a good night out.
At The Boss our welcome was not warm, the lighting down to the basement restaurant was harsh and, as we were shown to our table for five, I noticed something unusual – there was not a single table for two in the long, narrow restaurant. Having sat down and taken in the TV sets and the photos of winning racehorses dotted around the room, still with inordinately bright lighting, I concluded that The Boss must qualify as the most unromantic restaurant setting I have come across.
Deciding what to eat was easier than you would expect with such a complicated menu – a friend had phoned ahead to order. Warm mushrooms sautéed with preserved vegetables and truffles, an ingredient the kitchen is particularly fond of, were good, as was a dish of truffled rice, egg white and dried scallop. Crab with spicy noodles and a braised garoupa were well cooked but The Boss’s signature chicken dish was lacklustre and another option, oysters glazed with honey that we were encouraged to order by the manager, was a most forgettable combination. The waiters scurried but The Boss did not live up to its billing.
For Romain Blanchard, the general manager of Duddell’s, also in Central, one particular challenge of supervising his speedy staff is physical. As a tall Frenchman loitering – like all good restaurateurs – with intent, Blanchard’s head just misses the ceiling of the third-floor rooms that were originally offices. The history of this address, rather than the menu, preoccupied the first part of my conversation with my guest and old friend Dickie Lau.
Sitting on a plush yellow banquette, Lau recalled how, in 1970, he had been interviewed on that very floor for the job of office boy in a metal-trading company where I also worked. Lau went on to become its star trader before retiring, aged 50, to spend more time on the tennis courts of the exclusive Hong Kong Country Club.
As though to put me through my paces, Lau offered no advice on what to order but all the dishes clearly demonstrated just how exciting the best Cantonese cooking can be.
We began with a plate of mixed dim sum featuring, again, diced truffles, along with spicy, fried-rice rolls. This was followed by fillets of eel; an excellent half of roast chicken, the meat succulent and the skin crisp; garoupa with bok choy; and a casserole in which diced aubergine had been braised with bean curd and sweet chilli.
As I helped Lau and myself to a third serving of this dish, he smiled and said that he was surprised I liked it so much as it is a particularly Cantonese dish. It was this style of cooking, I replied, that would keep carrying me back to Hong Kong.
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
‘The Art of the Restaurateur’ by Nicholas Lander (Phaidon) is available as an ebook
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