Hong Kong certainly has its share of fantastic cocktails and mixologists who craft them, as I wrote about in my last post, One Year In: What It’s Like to Live in Hong Kong (Part 2 – Cocktailing and Wining in HK).
But what about the food?
A food city?
HK is widely regarded as an incredible ‘food city’. So does it live up to its reputation?
Many of you know that I hail from New York City, which is very truly a food city. It certainly has its bounty of crappy restaurants, like any city. But do a little research whether via professional critique or via friends, and you’ll pretty easily learn where to go (and not go). There are hundreds of wonderful restaurants, high, low, and in-between. I could probably name 30-40 that I adore, off the top of my head.
When we first moved to HK, I was a bit annoyed that I kept reading reviews or descriptions of restaurants that said ‘inspired by New York’ or ‘New York style’. Why on earth would a city like HK need that kind of descriptor? Well, to be honest – now I better understand. I know some might bristle at this, but with the distinct exception of obviously local Cantonese cuisine (Lung King Heen and Tim Ho Wan are example standouts – the former much more refined than the latter), a few other Asian cuisine-focused spots (such as the stellar Wagyu Takumi – with a hearty dash of French influence), a handful of new mid-range restaurants (more on that later), and certainly a few higher-end international/Western restaurants (such as Amber and The Principal), there is a lot of hype but often not a lot of pull-through.
There are certainly many beautiful restaurants opened for beautiful people – but the food does not consistently measure up in taste.
On the point of consistency of high quality and taste – from visit to visit, in the restaurant business, this is critical (or should be). I used to work in the biz, and this was a seemingly-obvious-but-oft-overlooked operating principle. We’ve been to several restaurants here, which upon repeat visit, did not measure up to first impressions – very disappointing. Quality control should be a basic underpinning.
Even more fundamentally, there are many restaurants that just shouldn’t make the cut. We visited one restaurant here that didn’t even have a true eponymous dish on the menu – and the dishes that were on the menu were mediocre at best. In another culinary mis-step, its pastry chef attempted to put a creative spin on a classic dessert – a noble effort, but sadly it failed miserably. How could this happen – and more puzzlingly, how could such a restaurant continue to attract a substantial clientele?
There are also several restaurants which I would call mostly ‘one-hit wonders’ – crafting one (or perhaps two) solid dishes, but a bit off with others.
Now – before you insist I am just being a food snob, note that this is not solely my opinion. I’ve discussed this extensively with others, expats and even locals – and most vehemently agree. There are good places to eat, but it’s just a lot harder to find them than I would like, and there are fewer than I would have expected.
I’ve learned even from local food & beverage PR folks that many restaurateurs (usually wealthy financiers) here open up new spots for the main goal of generating hype and then flip them in a year or 2, garnering a massive profit. So of course there’s minimal commitment to creating a quality venue.
I fear that some customers also maintain lower expectations than they should. We recently ate at a popular restaurant on trendy Star Street – pretty nice space, energetic vibe. But the food was adequate at best. Mark justifiably couldn’t take more than a few bites of his dish. To the manager’s credit, he did ask Mark what was wrong. But here’s the kicker – when Mark honestly opined that it was terrible, the manager agreed! He even told us one other dish we should never order! How could this garbage remain on the menu, when their own staff – indeed their leadership – knows better? He told us that 99% of folks are fine with the dishes and will repeatedly order them – so why change? Sad. For both the restaurant and for the diners.
A significant problem here is that it’s also tough to rely on standard restaurant reviews and publications. ‘Critics’ are often ‘invited’ by restaurants to do reviews. Which means reviewers are often not anonymous, frequently comped – so bias is the all-too-frequent result. I’m sorry, but not every new restaurant deserves a 4-star review. Those should be reserved for the exceptional. So I actually rely quite a bit on independent fellow bloggers and word-of-mouth (thank you, friends and bloggers!), and of course, our own dining experiences.
On local bites
All this said, it is worth returning to the local cuisine for a moment – worth another post in and of itself, actually.
Truth be told, some of it is too ‘bold’ or out there for me (hey, I just look this way!). On a more serious note, I urge you to PLEASE steer clear of things like shark’s fin soup – while oft-billed as a local delicacy and luxury dish, it honestly is not that impressive (to eat or be seen eating it), and it will cost you an unnecessary fortune. More importantly, if you do a quick Google search, you’ll quickly realize how insanely cruel and wasteful the fin harvesting process really is. Thankfully, HK has started some campaigns (with celebrities – important for local influence) imploring diners to boycott this dish – and it’s starting to work.
But from an everyday perspective, having other HK delicacies like creamy, crumbly egg tarts available to us just a block or so away from home? Priceless – almost literally (well, about 4 HKD, or 50 cents USD each).
Pristine, perfect little packages of dim sum morsels or other local snacks just a few minutes away (unless you’re in the hour-plus queue at the original Tim Ho Wan)? They might even pull you away from your much-loved pancake or eggs benedict brunch – at least for a little while.
Cantonese food is also getting a makeover in HK, at spots like Hutong and relative newcomers such as Duddell’s and Mott 32 – seeking (with varying success) to modernize and fancify local cuisine. They do all have beautiful rooms and at least make for a more visually luxe experience than traditional restaurants. And they each have at least a few solidly satisfying dishes.
You may have heard about HK’s private kitchen scene. So what gives? Well, years ago, HK’s dining underbelly gave birth to smaller-scale ‘restaurants’ – really more the rough-and-tumble brainchilds of aspiring chefs who desired a more pared-down, intimate dining atmosphere, often housed illegally in apartments. Several of these remain, with a newer wave that are more legally ‘legit’ – really more just small restaurants with the look and feel of a culinary secret.
From what we have experienced thus far, there is also a mix of quality – some definitely better, versus others that succeed more based on the concept rather than the merit of their cuisine. But I must admit, I do love the idea of private kitchens and still have several more to try before I make final judgment.
The promise of more tasty things to come
Fortunately, we seem to have arrived in HK in the midst of a small food revolution. Perhaps it’s the aspiring optimist in me surfacing, but it does seem that a new crop of promising restaurants have been bubbling up. Chefs such as British star Jason Atherton (and his partners-in-delicious-crime helming the 22 Ships, our regular favorite Ham & Sherry, and Aberdeen Street Social mini-empire), and somewhat-under-the-radar-but-absolutely-stellar chef Matsuru Konishi (at the exceptional Wagyu Takumi), have helped renew my hope in the HK international restaurant scene.
Little gems like Chom Chom, Little Bao, Yardbird, Chachawan, 121BC, Upper Modern Bistro, and Butchers Club Burgers have allowed us to satisfy more than one craving for full-flavored, well-executed food. I think they have started a bit of a trend, and I have high hopes for other newcomers. Now if only more of them accepted reservations! Queuing at 5:45 pm just does not work for me!
Unfortunately, while several popular restaurants from other parts of the globe have created new outposts here, most aren’t up to snuff – primarily because they don’t have the oversight they need. A prominent celebrity chef’s name attached to a restaurant here is often just that – a name.
On a more casual scale, sometimes there are exceptions – such as Ippudo, the famed Japanese ramen chain. At NYC’s outpost, the waits there are intolerably long, no matter how good the noodles. Here? We’ve never had to wait more than about 10 minutes, if that. It probably doesn’t hurt that there are 5 branches in HK alone!
At your service?
Service. It is very much a relative term. It can be found here, don’t get me wrong, at least at some premium properties. But is high-quality service the standard? Nope. And I find that very disheartening.
Is it their fault? Yes and no. Culturally speaking, service has not really been the priority. I can’t really blame locals for not inherently understanding what good service really looks like. It’s one example of where positive cross-cultural pollination pays off. And perhaps on occasion, flagging down waitstaff when you need them instead of waiting for them to serve you, is actually more efficient and straightforward (I still find it slightly off-putting). But especially at high-end establishments where owners/managers should know better, and increasingly savvy customers expect more? No excuses.
At a restaurant, when Mark asks for water, it would be lovely if the waitstaff would realize they should bring glasses for the table, not just him. When we ask for a dessert menu, maybe bring more than one, instead of making us pass it around the table (and no, it’s not because they ran out). Or our personal favorite? When they bring out one main dish at a time – making the rest of the table wait 10 minutes or longer for theirs, while the first gets cold (granted, this last point is likely more a reflection of poor kitchen timing – and perhaps an artifact of the traditional sharing culture that would render this sequencing less annoying).
One of our favorite responses is when someone in ‘customer service’ (at a restaurant or otherwise) simply utters the word “cannot” after barely listening to our question, punctuated by a dismissive wave or the best – hands drawn up into a large ‘X’. All you can do is laugh! And I do have to say – usually, even if not all that helpful, folks are at least fairly pleasant when telling you no.
As resources are plentiful, there is no shortage whatsoever of people to populate service roles. But more often than not, folks are very task-oriented and not properly trained to think outside of the box – and that’s the fault of management. Despite my commentary above, I think many actually do not want to say ‘no’ or admit they may not understand a request (sometimes it is a language issue, but often not). So we more than occasionally (and quite humorously) have been handed something that has little to nothing to do with what we actually requested! There is a reason why waitstaff here often repeat orders back (to their credit) – to avoid these types of misunderstandings.
Part of the issue with sub-par service is the 10% service charge, standardly added to checks almost everywhere. Yes, it’s cheaper than the 20% extra that is expected in other cities. But would I glady pay the extra 10% or more to actually enjoy fantastic customer service? Hell yes. Gladly! There’s a reason why a growing number of restaurants are proudly adopting a ‘no standard service charge’ policy, to encourage waitstaff to earn their tips and nudge customers to tip what they feel is appropriate.
One other pet peeve, from an online service perspective – I really wish more restaurants would develop their own websites instead of using Facebook alone. I know it costs more to go the extra step – but believe me, it’s worth it. I come from the world of advertising – properly marketing a good product is important and really does work. And please, please – post sample menus (and not buried in your Facebook photo album)!
The silver lining is that when we receive really good customer service, it truly stands out. The only restaurant where we’ve observed this here so far is at the excellent aforementioned Wagyu Takumi (and to reassure, my repeated accolades are deserved – and independently developed). Not only is the cuisine among the very best we have had here, the wine pairings perfect, the pacing of the courses spot on – but the service is also thoughtful, informed, proactive, synchronous, attentive but never overbearing. Exactly what it should be. Little surprise that the model is quite Japanese. One pays (literally) quite dearly for this experience, but the spot-on service is also a significant reason why I will remember that meal fondly for years to come.
And at our almost-weekly haunt, Ham & Sherry – the food/cocktails/sherry/wine selections are terrific, the vibe upbeat – and Chef Max, frontman Maker, and the rest of the team always treat us really well. We love them for it! We order (over)generously, tip well, and are just as friendly and appreciative toward them as they are toward us. They’re also business-savvy – they’re trying to build a genuine neighborhood restaurant, and they know we’re regulars. Now this is how you build a loyal following.
Stay tuned for more of my musings on (and imagery of) what it’s like to live in this fair city – immersing in the sweet side of HK, its culture, the people, and the evolution of Hong Kong!
All images © 2014 deb fong photography