Part of Hong Kong’s charm is the visceral contrast between a modern, vibrant and effervescent world city and its nostalgic heritage as a former British colony with ancient Chinese roots. It’s inescapable. Even as you gaze up at gravity-defying forests of steel and glass on streets named after British lords and ladies, you can’t escape the smell of fresh dumplings and steamed rice. And so to enjoy the total Hong Kong culinary experience, you have to spread your meals around as many influences as you can.
On the classic side, restaurants like Ho Lee Fook, Tim Ho Wan (who just opened a branch in New York) and The Chairman deliver the quintessential Chinese experience, but none more so than Fook Lam Moon. This city staple and a favorite among Chinese tycoons for over 75 years is more of an institution than merely a restaurant. Barricaded behind a shiny flotilla of Bentleys, Mercedes’ and Maybachs on a busy, neon-lit Wan Chai street, the nondescript access to a brief elevator ride plops you into a large, bright, windowless room dotted spaciously with square tables. An armada of firm (but friendly) white-aproned staff, whisks guests, wines, teas and trays laden with piping hot dishes around the room as if they were line dancers picking out and replacing partners in a hectic but inaudible ballet.
Once landing at our white linen 4-top, I was vexed as to the need for the double set of silver handled chopsticks at each place setting. Turns out the white set are for grabbing portions from the strictly sharable dishes onto your plate, whereas the black set are for lifting eat morsel into your mouth. (Clearly taboo to employ the same chopsticks for both functions, which meant an evening of constant chopstick swap-a-roos.)
The first few pages of the elaborate menu proudly include some of the world’s most infamous restaurant no-no’s: Shark fin soup and Birds nest congee. (Oh dear!) Instead we selected a few equally famous – but more GreenPeace-acceptable options that all arrived inside of 9 minutes. Instead of that (often unpleasant) ¼ inch layer of unavoidable fat that normally surrounds any order of pork belly, this Chargrilled crispy pork belly had rendered its fat entirely during the process of becoming the most magically tender cut of crispy-skinned goodness, bathing in a maple syrupy sweet barbecue sauce. On the subject of impossibly crispy skins, no Oktoberfest rotisserie Brathändl could ever rival this deep red Crispy Chicken with eight succulent sections this side of a wish bone. On the blander side our order of Wok fried king prawns desperately needed that welcome side order of wild mushroom stew.
On the more modern restaurant front, my favorites include Yardbird and Duddell’s, but no trip to Hong Kong would be complete without at least trying to get a table at Mott 32. Named for the first ever Chinese convenience store dating back to 1851 at 32 Mott Street in New York’s Chinatown, this deep, dark, glam and impressively modern space is housed three floors beneath the Standard Chartered Bank building in Central Hong Kong.
As you descend from the ruckus of honking cabs and double-decker trams grinding along rusty tracks, the dark mirrored staircase sets the scene for a very special and decadent experience. It’s as if an exclusive modern nightclub and an opium den produced a child. On one end of the wrought-iron framed clubby lounge, a wall of bright blue windows reveals a glimpse of the fuss, steam and energy inside the frenetic kitchen, while solo spotlights illuminated the black and gold banquettes, booths and a lengthy marble communal table, providing the perfect hideout for the next hour or two.
The cocktails are all home made delights and the menu offers a range of contemporary spins on some of the cuisine’s greatest hits, but the a la carte dim sum is what all the fuss is about. Divided into six sections: Steamed, Siu Mai, Har Gow, Baked, Cheung Fun and Fried, chef Lee Man Sing reaches for ingredients far beyond the Asian peninsula.
The dark red Crab & Caviar Hot & Sour Iberico Pork Soup Dumplings are an incredibly delicious mashup of salty umami. And nothing I have ever sampled in Chinatown can rival the taste and crisp texture of the King Prawn Har Gow, nor the wafer-thin fur-covered breadcrumb Chicken, Prawn and Toro Croquette. But I challenge any wonky dim sum wagon that ever rolled passed your table to muster the show-stopping brilliance of their signature item: The Crispy Sugar coated BBQ Iberico Pork bun. Adding a candy shell to an evolved pork ragout, transformed a one note ho-hum bun into a Chinese rock opera.