A foodie’s guide to Hong Kong

Longer stuff
February 5, 2015

Hong Kong at night falls somewhere between Manhattan and Magaluf, combining the grandeur of the former with the trashy hedonism of the latter. It’s also home to one of the most international restaurant scenes in the world.

You’re as likely to stumble across authentic Peruvian (Chicha), North African (Kabash) or modern British (Aberdeen Street Social) cooking as you are Cantonese, the traditional local cuisine. The region’s position as the commercial gateway to the east (or west, depending on your perspective) makes restaurateurs go weak at the knees; HKD signs flash in their eyes at the thought of all those nouveaux riche Chinese and high-flying ex-pats searching for the next hot place to spend their cash.

You’ll find four Hong Kong restaurants in last year’s S.Pellegrino top 100 list (although there aren’t any in the top 50). Western chefs like Jason Atherton have seen the potential; he now has three Hong Kong outposts, serving European dishes with an Asian twist. The first Italian restaurant outside of Italy to gain three Michelin stars is located here. Meanwhile, a new generation of Chinese restaurateurs like Yenn Wong, Alan Lo and Paulo Pong (founders of Duddell’s) are doing the same thing in reverse, serving traditional Cantonese dishes in a western context. Here are some to look out for.

Cafe Gray Deluxe, The Upper House Hotel, Queensway

Hotel restaurants can be hard to swallow. Too big and impersonal. Tables set in spaces that were never intended for dining, occupied by jet-lagged people who give the impression of wanting to be anywhere else. Café Gray Deluxe at The Upper House hotel, however, comes highly recommended. The heaving 49th floor dining room was buzzing with a crowd that was young, pretty and mostly local. It’s especially popular with ex-pats trying to impress visiting clients or family, and the views over the harbor certainly oblige. If you book a window table at 8pm you can watch the Hong Kong light show, which is the biggest in the world according to the Guinness World Book of Records. Personally, I was too engrossed in the food to pay much attention. The menu is Mediterranean with the occasional nod to the east (prawn crackers served with steak tartare, for instance). The lobster risotto with salsify, artichoke and tarragon emulsion was excellent, as was the Iberico pork belly. While the menu doesn’t offer many surprises, everything is impeccably prepared, as you’d expect from chef Gray Kunz, whose culinary career has seen him work in top kitchens from Switzerland to New York.

22 Ships, Ship Street, Wan Chai

British chef Jason Atherton’s first Hong Kong venture is a world away from the gaudy opulence of Berner’s Tavern or the lofty sophistication of Tower 42’s City Social. There’s a no reservations policy and, as it’s consistently packed, you’ll most likely have to leave your name at the door and head over the road to another Atherton venture, Ham & Sherry (see below). The bijou tapas restaurant – around 40 covers – has a European bistro vibe. Expect to share your personal space with the elbows and knees of your fellow diners, which somehow manages to be charming rather than infuriating. A central bar/kitchen occupies the lion’s share of the space, with stools lined against every possible wall. Huge windows opening onto the street prevent it from being a no-go area for claustrophobics. In this case, “tapas” doesn’t always mean “Spanish”: for every Iberico bellota, there’s a pig trotters on toast or scallop ceviche with yuzu and Chinese radish. Presentation-wise it bears the Atherton stamp, all bright colours and impressive plating. There’s a nice mix of haute cuisine and relaxed, modern comfort food. An excellent ham, cheese and truffle toastie topped with a quail egg sits comfortably beside exquisitely presented salt cod with chorizo, red pepper and squid ink aioli. Highlights included asparagus, duck egg and black pudding and an excellent artichoke, mushrooms and miso with parmesan shavings. It’s something of a marvel that all of this is prepared in a kitchen the size of a broom closet. 22ships.hk

Ham & Sherry, Ship Street, Wan Chai

I used Jason Atherton’s bar – as many do – as a trendy waiting room for his 22 Ships restaurant over the road, but it’s worth visiting in its own right. Covered in asymmetric tiles, the walls are slightly headache-inducing, but given how crowded it gets, you probably won’t be able to see them anyway. As the name suggests, the menu offers generous helpings of both pig and fortified wine, although all the hip young things I could see were all chugging cocktails from the “Back to School” themed menu. hamandsherry.hk

Brickhouse, D’Aguilar St, Central

Located down an alley, the sky barely visible through towering buildings, Brickhouse would be about as traditional a Hong Kong bar as you could find, were it not serving food and booze from the other side of the globe. I became rather more acquainted with the Margaritas at this of-the-moment Mexican bar/restaurant than I did the tacos – I went immediately after gorging myself at 22 Ships – but this is how most Hong Kongers experience it. The exposed brickwork and hand-painted murals owe as much to the lofts of Manhattan as they do the dive-bars of Mexico City, and the result is a pleasantly scuzzy space packed seven days a week with the city’s bright young things. brickhouse.com.hk

Yardbird, Bridges St, Sheung Wan

This Japanese Yakitori (skewered chicken) restaurant is another of Hong Kong’s current hipster highlights, with chefs, foodies and bloggers queueing for a chance to get into the no-reservations dining room. Expect to consume every part of the chicken, from thigh and breast, to heart and cartilage of the knee (crunchy but surprisingly palatable). yardbirdrestaurant.com

Duddell’s, Duddell St, Central

You could quite easily visit Hong Kong without eating a single Cantonese meal, but you really shouldn’t. Duddell’s restaurant and members’ club may take its design inspiration from Scandinavia but its culinary focus is reassuringly Cantonese. The two Michelin-starred kitchen serves up an a la carte menu spanning 11 pages, touching base with virtually every regional classic and delicacy. But I was here for the dim sum. The dumplings are some of the finest I’ve ever tasted, beautifully presented, translucent packages served with a garnish of roe or expertly tied with a sliver of vine leaf. I asked the chef to put together a selection and nothing disappointed. The barbecue steamed buns were impossibly light and dangerously moreish, while the dumplings ranged from subtly beguiling (cod and Shanghai cabbage) to wonderfully intense (mushroom and black truffle). I got through eight steamers-worth before grudgingly capitulating. duddells.co

First published in City A.M.