The sweet side of HK is a bit two-faced – on one side, more traditional, local sweets, and on the other, more western-influenced treats. And while Canto-sweets hold their own charm, I must confess – I still lean toward desserts of a more European bend.
HKers certainly don’t snub their nose at imports from say, France or Italy (or their own adopted versions). Indeed, HKers often obsess over especially all things French. They even dedicate the month of May to that culture (including cuisine, of course).
In my mind, French confections take their finest form in macarons – those delicate, tender, meringue-based sweets that resemble sandwich cookies but are oh, so much more. Ganache, cream, or smooth jam-like centers are tucked between 2 fragile domed shells, smooth on their tops, pleasingly jagged on their edges, with just the slightest hint of a crisp on the outside that quickly yields and melts in your mouth. Mmm…
I remember one of my more superficial ‘concerns’ about making the move out here was that I foolishly thought I would need to wait for a return trip stateside or to Europe in order to satisfy my macaron cravings. Silly me! Honestly, they seem to be the most ubiquitous western sweet delicacy here.
What’s fantastically unique about them here, though? The flavors! Of course, there are the classics, like vanilla and salted caramel (and justifiably so). But what I adore are those that you can’t find as easily in the west (at least in the US) – rose, lychee, green tea, jasmine, Mandarin orange. If you’ve never tried them, trust me – they’re dangerously addictive.
You do need to be selective with your macaron source – as there are spots that try to make these delicacies but fail miserably. Overall, you will be relatively spoilt for choice here, though – with all the top French names at your fingertips, including Ladurée, Pierre Hermé, Le Goûter Bernardaud, and Paul Lafayet, all of whom have embraced more exotic flavors that appeal to especially the eastern-leaning palate. I have to say, the local boutique chain, Sift, more known for its cupcakes and helmed by a local HKer, also consistently churns out some mighty tasty macarons in some of our favorite flavors. With a Sift branch just a few blocks away from our flat, they are a near-weekly favorite for us (good thing there is also a gym conveniently located in our building)!
Ah, French macarons – they are my single favorite dessert, if I had to choose one. But thankfully I do not!
The French hits continue in the form of choux à la crème (or cream puffs), airy pastry filled with cream or custard. I must say, Mark’s dear mum makes the best version of these I have ever tasted (and no, I am not just kissing up!). We’ve even tried convincing his family to open up a cream puff bakery or dedicated dessert truck – they’re truly that delicious. In between visits back to Colorado, Mark and I make do with 126 Grammes or the oddly-named Beard Papa. We prefer the former, for both their delicacy and great texture contrast between pastry and cream, and also their sophisticated flavors such as raspberry-rose, wild yuzu, strawberry-ginger, Mandarin, and green tea. Each puff is topped with a playful candy disc. Plus, their storefront is quite cute, with the pâtisserie operations within view – and conveniently located just outside my new favorite hangout, PMQ.
When I reflect on my childhood, one of my favorite memories is of a regular treat Mom used to allow me to pluck from the shelves of the local bakery – mille-feuille (also known as Napoleons). Their flaky layers, artfully filled with pastry cream, topped with a smattering of powdered sugar or a touch of frosting, were always a welcome perk. Here in HK, we’ve had a quite good version at Nosh! (and a less-than-thrilling version at Boulangerie Bistronomique).
In a similar realm, éclairs also reign supreme in my mind. They are easy to make poorly though, with an all-too-familiar soggy pastry and overly heavy cream filling. But when made well, they are heavenly. Airy pastry with just a hint of crunch on the crust, with an impossibly light cream – now that’s a real éclair. Aberdeen Street Social crafts a fine version. But I am still in search of perfection!
My most indelible memory of Paris is not of the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, or even the Louvre. It is of the sweet, buttery aroma of freshly-baked crêpes wafting into the air from simple street carts. I recall thinking, how could anyone not love a city that greets you right out of the metro with such a heavenly smell! Of course, I learned that was just the tip of the sweet French iceberg (and that crêpes originate from Brittany, France). Here in HK, decent versions of both sweet crêpes and savory galettes can be found at La Crêperie. But they don’t quite match my memories..perhaps I’ve over-romanticized them in my mind.
It would be tough to argue that soufflé is not a form of dessert perfection. Proper soufflés are the fanciful stuff of airy sweet dreams. With its characteristic loftiness encouraged by egg whites and further cajoled by oven heat, there is little more satisfying than the gentle, velvety warmth of a freshly baked soufflé made even more luxurious with the addition of a creamy sauce, often vanilla-based. The loveliest version I have experienced so far in HK was somewhat ironically at the Italian restaurant, Otto e Mezzo Bombana. Perfectly puffed, the Grand Marnier-inflected version there was deeply satisfying, finished with a light dusting of crunchy sugar crystals – but missing the (somewhat superfluous but usually still lovely) sauce.
Italy is also rightly lauded for its desserts. From time to time, I enjoy a slightly fluffy vanilla panna cotta. But I really love a great tiramisu. Yes, it’s overdone, but it’s still so delicious when made well. That combination of espresso-soaked ladyfingers, mascarpone, and a dusting of cocoa (no thick coatings leading to cocoa powder inhalation, please!) is just so satisfying and maybe even provides a hint of caffeine to help keep you awake after a coma-inducing meal. Somewhat to my surprise, a very good version can be had at Piccolo (yes, the pizza joint; they’ll even deliver in obligatory little glass cups). Private kitchen G7 also makes a fine classic tiramisu, and if you’re extra-nice to Chef Eddy, you may even get a second helping. An evolved tiramisu bar pleases the palate at Upper Modern Bistro. And Otto e Mezzo Bombana unsurprisingly assembles a lovely tiramisu – or should I say, disassembles (it’s deconstructed on the plate for visual effect). This one also benefits from the addition of mini-cubes of crunch, for a bit more textural complexity.
Toeing the line between savory and sweet, the British influence here lives on in perpetuity, in the form of the lovely and highly popular ritual of high tea. Despite the inclusion of dainty savory sandwiches, occasionally a couple hot bites, and often a lovely selection of classic or creative teas, I’ve always viewed this most elegant afternoon indulgence as simply a vehicle for a parade of sweets. And there’s nothing wrong with that!
Not all places do it well (often another way to showcase ‘pretty’ more than ‘delicious’). And I must confess, I’m not one for super-traditional, so I have yet to brave the queue at the historic Peninsula Hotel. But there are several more contemporary spots, including one of my favorite spots for drinks (Café Gray Deluxe at the Upper House Hotel) and several other high-end hotels that do afternoon tea justice – and if you choose carefully, you might even snag a killer view to boot.
This being highly commercialized HK, many of the more contemporary afternoon teas are often ‘themed’ (read, co-branded with a specific pastry brand like Ladurée, or even a peripherally relevant beauty or fashion brand – appealing to the predominantly female customer base). You may even find yourself going home with a goody bag in tow, so you too can become a marketing vehicle.
On the south side of the island, The Verandah at The Repulse Bay offers a peaceful, colonial-feel setting for your classic high tea. Personally, I think this is a place to go more for the ambience than for the food, which I found to be a bit of a mixed bag – the finger sandwiches are a bit too old-school for me, and the Belgian waffle is a bit bland and feels like a filler. But others like the mango pudding are quite tasty. For better or worse, it does all feel quite ‘ladies who lunch’. Whether that’s your cup of tea or not (sorry, I couldn’t resist!), The Verandah’s spacious interior, relaxing ambience, and view toward the water may make it challenging for you to return to your normal chaos. This spot is nestled adjacent to the Repulse Bay Arcade, so you can extend your afternoon escape and check out the shops or treat yourself to a massage at Sense of Touch. The Arcade is a little ‘suburban’ for me, but I must admit, it’s not a bad place to chill out and leave the daily grind behind for a few hours.
Heading from Europe to the good ‘ole USA, that all-American classic, the cupcake, has also made a home in HK – although not with the fervor with which it stormed NYC years ago. Sift offers a nice variety, but I prefer those at Kisses Cupcakes. Perhaps I am a bit biased, as the consulting pastry chef is none other than delightfully talented, whimsical Chika Tillman, the star behind ChikaLicious, my favorite all-dessert restaurant in NYC (who also makes incredible little puddings and éclairs). It also helps (hurts?) that Kisses is about 3 blocks away from us. Sigh – our Wan Chai ‘hood is conspiring to make us rotund. Oh well!
On another cake front, Phoenix Sweets at PMQ is crafting some of the most intricate, gorgeously decorated cakes I’ve ever laid eyes on. Edible works of art, these cakes kick the phrase ‘good enough to eat’ to the sidelines – quickly replaced by ‘(almost) too beautiful to eat’. You will try to convince yourself that the floral designs are just that – flowers. But those ‘flowers’ are handmade additions constructed from frosting. Truly remarkable. It’s hard to imagine cutting into one of them – and I haven’t yet, so I can’t yet comment on how tasty they are. But they certainly make for a visual feast and a stellar centerpiece at any special event. Just note that custom orders are required a couple months in advance, so plan ahead.
Right about now, perhaps you’re wondering why there’s not more chocolate featured in this post. To be honest, I am one of those anomalous mutants that does not crave chocolate. Don’t get me wrong – I thoroughly appreciate a high-quality dark chocolate, particularly if integrated into something warm, such as a soufflé. But I just was not born with the chocolate gene. So I rarely indulge. Perhaps I prefer my sugar more ‘straight up’. But once in a while, and especially if there is a limited dessert menu, I’ll partake.
I do think that one of the best flavor combinations around is bittersweet dark chocolate, complemented by the sweet-tart nuances of raspberry (plus by some/my accounts, those raspberries count as a serving of healthy fruit!). Café Deadend offers a very tasty, dense, dark chocolate brownie with raspberry sorbet. Their coffees are also very good. And if you need another reason to stop by, consider the lovely breads on offer right next door at their sister bakery, Po’s Atelier. Not to mention the rest of the evolving, cool PoHo enclave of Sheung Wan – but we’ll get to that another time.
To return to the ‘basics’ for a moment, there is something to be said about the great classics. A delicious croissant. Little fruit pâtés or madeleines. Expanding beyond the sweet, even a great loaf of crusty bread.
But it’s not easy to track down, say, a really good baguette in Hong Kong. After much trial and error with other shops, I learned that Po’s Atelier makes a very good ‘classic’, essentially a baguette, plus a host of other fine breads. And the best baguette we have enjoyed thus far can be found (yes, again, just a block away from us!) at Eric Kayser. The man knows how to bake bread!
Being a modern girl (I’d like to think), I also thoroughly respect and enjoy a pastry chef who goes out on a sweet limb and creates something new or even just a fun adaptation of a classic. Some of HK’s pastry chefs are not shy when it comes to experimentation. Below are just a few worthy mentions.
To round it all out, we arrive at that pinnacle dessert, the universal favorite – ice cream! Ice cream is that most democratic of desserts. It’s easily accessible, with a variety of flavors to please anyone, relatively inexpensive, available ready-made almost everywhere – and at least in the US, an incredibly-annoying-yet-somehow-still-spirit-lifting-chime of the neighborhood ice cream truck even signals a cheap version of creamy goodness is just moments away. It’s the everyman/woman/child’s dessert!
Save for the poor lactose-intolerant folks in our midst, I’m convinced that everyone craves ice cream from time to time (and with the aid of enzyme-laced pills, maybe even the lactose-challenged still crave!). I used to crave it daily – until I realized how much saturated fat Häagen-Dazs really contains, and that those pints are intended to be ‘4 servings’ (seriously?). Years ago, I staged a self-intervention. But I confess, I still give in once in a while.
There are plenty of ice cream makers in HK, including the fine folks at XTC Gelato, who churn out seasonal and sometimes Asian-influenced flavors (ok, yes – gelato is not the same as ice cream, but you get the point). I’m a fan of their black sesame and mango versions, but the variety is extensive, and a selection can even be found at your local grocer.
When my brother and I were kids, my chemist dad used to bring home dry ice and fill the bathtub, much to our smoky, giggly delight. So is it any surprise that my top pick ice cream shop is the pomp-and-circumstance, hyped-up, cheeky Lab Made? Am I biased by their showy introduction to my personal cup of freshly made ice cream or gelato? Absolutely! Is it all just a gimmick? Probably! But who the hell cares? The end product is most important, and the frozen-to-order specialties at Lab Made are pretty damn good.
Supposedly, the liquid nitrogen freezing process allows for the use of less cream to still achieve creamy, smooth results. So it’s borderline healthy! Ok, not really. But every little bit counts, right? The sea salt gelato with caramel is my preferred flavor, and I’m genuinely disappointed when it’s replaced by a ‘special’ flavor. If you like salted caramel, I promise this will tickle your taste buds in all the right ways. But they did just announce a new raspberry rose lychee flavor – which pretty much has my name written all over it.
Hell – it’s pretty hot and humid here still, in the middle of this crazy typhoon season. Ice cream is almost mandatory to stay cool, right? Make your way to the super-cool ‘hood of Tai Hang to take in the frosty show – and if you have kids (or antsy partners), this will keep them entertained for at least 5 minutes (2 to observe the freezing process, 3 to consume – give or take)! Sigh – all this talk of ice cream is making me crave Mom’s homemade apple crumb pie à la mode…I suppose there are certain things I do miss, after all (and Mom, of course!). Overall, no matter your sweet indulgence of choice, fear not – Hong Kong has quite a bit to offer. Apparently, even the unlikely, humble churro has made its way to Wan Chai (and again, about 2 blocks from where we live). I surrender!
Sweet dreams, Hong Kong!!
All images © 2014 deb fong photography