Hong Kong - Foodie Utopia or Culinary Dystopia?

>> Tuesday, July 12, 2011


The final destination of my trip to China was Hong Kong. Hong Kong has been idolized by many a food travel show host and described as some foodie equivalent to Hajj where all foodies must make the journey at least once in their life. Due to the confined living spaces in Hong Kong, most families don't have a kitchen (or at least not a large one), so they are forced to eat out for all their meals in the day. This has created a naturally large demand and competition between all the restaurants in Hong Kong to create the gastronomic Mecca. Being the fanboy that I am, I ate up all of the praise and was looking forward to Hong Kong as the highlight of my trip to China.

Digression:
One thing I noticed in Hong Kong was that I wasn't welcomed as a food blogger. When I started taking photos of the food I was eating, I would get dirty looks that made me worry they were spitting in my food. At one of the restaurants, the waitress was sent over by the manager to question why I was taking photos of the food. For the most part in China, I seemed to be dismissed as the crazy American tourist, but in Hong Kong I was treated more as an undercover health inspector or reporter looking for a scoop on breaking a story.

Temple Street (Kowloon Bay):
The Temple Street Night Market is one of the largest tourist stops in Hong Kong. The hotel I stayed at pretty much recommended this location exclusively as a place to visit. I was told that I would be able to sample the seafood delicacies of the South China Sea. Thinking that sucking some crustacean brains would be the perfect cure for my travel weariness, I set out with some gusto to the Night Market.

I had been dragged through the Women's Market earlier in the day so I mostly ignored the overpriced trinkets for sale that appeared to be more or less the same as the other markets. After walking the length of the market, we settled on a crowded seafood restaurant that reeked of seafood fried in garlic.

One important lesson we learned as we sat down was that when they give you chopsticks in Hong Kong, you pour tea into a cup and then soak all the utensils in the tea to "sanitize" them. You then pour the tea into some throwaway bucket after ordering and before your food arrives.
steamed clams in black bean sauce
I figured I wanted a quick fix and I saw several other tables had ordered this item and figured it was a home run. Instead of being that grand slam out of the ballpark, it was more of that foul ball that pop ups around first base and ends up being and easy out. The dish was way too salty and overwhelmed the palette. To make things worse, this dish was pretty unbalanced towards overbearing spice, which coupled with the saltiness was a bad combo.  This dish was also desperate for the inclusion of some Thai basil, which usually accompanies it. The freshness of the basil would have helped cut into some of the fishy flavors of the seafood.
Deep Fried Mantis Prawn
So one of the supposed great in season seafood items I was supposed to try was the mantis prawn. When this dish came out, I was pretty disappointed as these were some of the smallest "prawns" I've ever seen. Don't you need something like a U12 or U15 distinction to be labeled a prawn? I think these must have been U20s or worse.

The garlic frying smell that I had been indulging in was brought out with these mantis prawns and I thought I would be able to sate the craving started by the smell. Unfortunately, the prawns were fried to oblivion to the point where they had lost all texture (or maybe these prawns were just that bad). Instead of succulent chewy meat, the texture of the prawn was a mushy mealy mess of being stuck to the shell. It was bad enough that I'd say for sure that these prawns were previously frozen and someone totally messed up the freezing process so that large ice crystals formed in the freezing, destroying the texture of the prawn.

Scallops
Despite the scallops being small, this dish was well cooked and well balance. The garlic and mung bean noodles were a nice compliment to the soup that formed in the steaming of the scallops.
Steamed Local Fish
It looks like someone wounded this fish before it was brought out. However, I believe that happened because they were checking if the fish was fully cooked. This fish was cooked perfectly and steamed well and was easily the best dish of the night. The ginger soy sauce was a base for the steaming liquid that brought out the nice gelatinous properties of the fish.

Fu Sing Shark Fin Seafood Restaurant (Causeway Bay):
1/F., 68 Yee Wo Street, Causeway Bay, HK
When looking at the choices of Dim Sum restaurants in Hong Kong, I settled upon Fu Sing as the "online consensus" choice. Hong Kong is famous for the Dim Sum and I was determined to have some good Dim Sum.

One thing that was apparent about Fu Sing was that they were attempt to move beyond the tradition Dim Sum in certain aspects, but still were able to execute classical favorites as well. It was also apparent that they were used to a small party ordering a lot of food since they decided not to serve everything I ordered.
Napkins were actually provided as well as a complimentary peanut and tofu amuse!
The one dish that every online poster talked about in Fu Sing was the Char Siu (BBQ Pork). In general the Cantonese are famous for their BBQ dishes, but the Char Siu at Fu Sing was alleged to be particularly spectacular.
Char siu
Even with all the hype, this dish over-delivered on my expectations. It was like expecting The Dark Knight to be good, but never just realizing how good it really was. The Char Siu was prepared such that the outside had a nice hardened crust, but the inside of it was so tenderly succulent that it nearly melted in my mouth. The sauce was the perfect balance of sweet, savory and smoky. My dining companion said that she actually didn't like eating Char Siu, but she really enjoyed Fu Sing's version of it.
Shau Mai
These shau mai were excellent as well. The classic shau mai expectation was maintained in the shape and construction of the dish, but was also modified with the inclusion of the egg on the top. The egg brought a nice earthy finish to the dumpling, which enhanced the enjoyment of the meal. The sweetness of the pea also provided a nice textural and sweet element to the dumpling. Again, my dining companion usually is not a fan of shau mai, but found herself enjoying this version of it.
Har Gow
If the other dishes served were an example of how the classics were being modified in new directions, the har gow (shrimp dumplings) where an illustration of how well the classics are executed. In my opinion, the key to a good har gow is the the skin. The outermost portion of the skin must be filmy and strong enough to hold in all the juices of the dumping, but the inner part must be soft enough to provide a luxurious mouth feel for the sweetness of the shrimp and savoriness of the shrimp broth in the dumpling. The skin of this har gow was exactly what I expected and fulfilled all my desires for high quality dim sum.
Red bean mochi
These red bean mochis were fried to perfection. The outer layer had just the right amount of crunch to contrast a soft and delectable interior. The red bean interior provided just the right amount of sweetness, and the candied walnut was also a nice touch.
Fried Turnip Cake
The friend turnip cake is my favorite dim sum item. Fu Sings interpretation of the Turnip cake has the outside coated and fried to be similar to a hash brown. Additionally there is a layer of seafood paste that adds a nice twist to the classic. Normally I would be appalled by the inclusion of the seafood as I figure it would detract from the turnip cake, but what was brilliant about this dish was that the turnip cake and the seafood paste had roughly the same texture, and the seafood paste did not overshadow the turnip cake. Rather, the natural saltiness of the seafood mixed with the turnip cake and enhanced it.

On any other occasion, I would have called this the best dish of the meal, but Fu Sing's Char Siu is seriously on some transcendent level. 

When I had that Char Shiu, I nearly shed a tear of happiness as I knew I had come to the mountaintop of Char Siu in my life. After eating this Char Siu, I don't think I will ever eat another Char Shiu as good as this in my life. In the trip to China, I was hoping to discover many such Chinese foods that I could say were the pinnacle of Chinese cuisine, but I really only believe that this Char Siu fit the criteria for food in that vein.

If I was reviewing the restaurant separately, I would give Fu Sing the gigabyte only because the service was somewhat lacking and they didn't bring all the dishes out that we ordered.

Mak's Noodle (Jordan):
G/F., No. 55 Parkes Street, Jordan, Kowloon

One of the defining qualities of Cantonese food is supposed to be the Wonton egg noodles soup. I decided that I wasn't going to go to Macau to try the best and settled for Mak's in Hong Kong.
The noodles actually arrived like this
After digging out the wontons
The first thing that you'll probably notice is how small the bowl is. This is not an optical illusion; normal Americans will probably have to order at least two bowls to be full.
One of the big discussions about the wontons in the wonton noodle soup is the shrimp to pork ratio. Mak's allegedly uses a 60-40 pork to shrimp ratio. The broth was both savory and also had a strong umami flavor and a hint of sweetness, which really complimented the noodles and the wontons.
Wontons and Dumplings Soup
So what happened was that we ordered a combo, which consisted of 2 bowls of noodles an the gai lan vegetable and shared that. Apparently this is what a normal person orders for themself at the restaurant in order to be full. Since we had two orders of noodles I decided to get something slightly different in the second bowl to compare.
The dumpling included some mix of shitake and wood ear mushrooms with the pork and shrimp. Although it was different I didn't necessarily feel it was any better than the wontons alone.
Gai Lan
The vegetable that finished the combo. It was pretty much the run of the mill expected gai lan.

Overall, Mak's was not an amazing destination, but it was definitely very good. If there was a branch open here in San Diego, I would probably visit at least once a month and it would have been good enough for a bit award.

Tim Ho Wan:
Flat 8 G/F Phase 2, Tsui Yuen Mansion, 2-20 Kwong Wa Street, Mongkok, Kowloon
Tim Ho Wan was recommended by one of my friends, and is one of the 1-starred Michelin Dim Sum Restaurants in Hong Kong. After Fu Sing (which has no Michelin Stars), I had pretty high expectations coming into this meal.
Longan Soup
This was the first dish to come out and was an indication of just how bad the meal was going to be. There was way too much sugar in this soup, and it should have been held off until after most of the other dishes instead of served immediately. One spoonful of this was about three spoonfuls too many.
Deep Fried Glutinous Dumpling 
From the photos on the walls, this seemed to be one of their signature dishes. After taking a bite, I was wondering what chef would actually want to have their name associated with such an atrocity. While the dumpling wrapping was fine, the inner portion of the dumpling was a mishmash of discordant strong flavors that competed with each other. When I was eating this, I felt as if this was a bunch of different goatse images competing to gross out the diner.
Fried Turnip Cake
This take on the turnip cake illustrates everything that can possible go wrong with the turnip cake. There was not a good fry on the turnip cake, so there was no textural contrast. In addition it was weak in the umami flavor and under-seasoned, which made it bland. I had to add a lot of soy sauce to dip this, which then subsequently overwhelmed the flavor of the turnip for having too much soy.
Steamed Beef Tendons???
I don't actually remember what this was, but it might have actually been the best dish of the meal since I don't remember anything bad about it.
Steamed Dumpling in "Cao Chow Style"
This seemed to be another one of the signature dishes that was plastered along the walls. Compared to what I said about the skin of the dumplings of Har Gow at Fu Sing, you could tell just looking at this dumpling skin that something was wrong. These skins didn't have enough of the inner filling, which was a shame because the Cao Chow Style included some cooked nuts and vegetables in the mix, which brought interesting textural elements. However, the skin was not able to stand up to these flavors so instead of mixing together harmoniously, the dish was once again a jumble of discordant flavors competing against each other.
Har Gow
Again, just looking at the skin of these har gow, you could tell that this wasn't going to work out well. To make matters worse, it seemed like the shrimp in these har gow were frozen poorly, so some of that texture and natural sweetness of the shrimp was missing. Overall it was a very muted flavor har gow.
"chinese tamale" pork wrapped in glutinous rice wrapped with tea leaf
This dish was probably my favorite of the meal (as far as I can remember). It's not that this dish was particularly well done, but that it was something that was at least familiar and executed well. The pork in the wrapping was well cooked and the sauce mixed well with the rice to provide a nice kick of the flavor. The tea leaf also contributed some tea notes to the rice flavoring.
Steamed Beef Ball with Bean Curd Skin
When I made dumplings recently, I tried a bunch of different fillings including an 80-20 grass fed beef mix that I paid about $8 a pound for. In my own personal test, the $1 a pound ground pork beat out the beef handily.

In the last of the supposed signature dishes, I was hoping the steamed beef balls would be a saving grace to an otherwise disappointing meal. Unfortunately, this was possibly the worst of the signature dishes. I was expecting a light and airy meatball that somewhat resembled a meatloaf but with more soy and umami notes that are apparent in Oriental cooking. Unfortunately, these beef balls were heavy and were not refined in taste.

Yung Kee Restaurant (Central):
The final element I was told to try (by several people) in Hong Kong was the roast goose. It was supposed to be so good that it would make me forget about the Peking Duck in Beijing. Because I would have to travel out of Hong Kong and back into China to Shum Tsum in order to find the "Roast Duck capital," I instead decided to try the "most famous" Roast Duck Restaurant in Hong Kong, which also happens to have 1 michelin star.
Just like Quan Je De, I think "most famous" restaurants in China are basically a guarantee that the meal is going to suck.
Thousand Year Duck Egg and Ginger
So when we sat down, the waiter automatically brought this out and I assumed it was complimentary. Little did I know, I was actually being charged for this. It was just your standard thousand year egg with some poorly picked ginger.
1/4 Roast Duck (Dark Meat)
Basically it was horrible. You can probably get a better tasting Chinese Roast duck in Oklahoma City than this roast goose tasted.
Char Siu
I've had better Char Siu in San Diego. This was appalling. What especially made this bad was that the piece was probably 40% fat and the fat had cooled to the point where the texture was extremely unpalatable.
"char siu" pieces that are mostly fat
random throwaway vegetable
What made this meal especially appalling to me was the bill. The total cost of this meal was about $70 US. Bad service, even worse food, and a cold and dry atmosphere.

Overall, the trip to Hong Kong wasn't quite the culinary Who's Who I was hoping for. I had hoped to stop by Bo Innovation and see how Chinese Molecular Gastronomy was, but never got around to going. While I had a great time at Fu Sing, I had horrible experiences at Tim Ho Wan and Yung Kee. In the future, I think I will need a local foodie to guide me around the streets of Hong Kong to avoid the many pitfalls. Hong Kong is no longer a place where you can walk into any random restaurant and expect a great meal.

In the end Hong Kong is neither the utopia or dystopia, but it seems to be a city on the downturn as far as restaurants go. With much of the talent migrated to Vancouver, Singapore, or Shanghai, Hong Kong is in desperate need some inspired new ideas before it falls into culinary oblivion.

Furthermore, I have no idea who is handling the Michelin guide for Hong Kong, but I think the standards are far off from whoever was doing the LA/Vegas guide. I've had some great meals from restaurants in LA that should basically be 3 stars if they were scored on the HK scale, but those restaurants are mostly unrated.

If you go to Hong Kong, find a local that is willing to guide you around and offer to pay for them to eat with you and maybe some other benefits. Apparently that is the best way to find the best places to eat.

2 comments:

Yao July 20, 2011 at 10:28 PM  

Saw this post on QLI today: http://www.qliweb.com/food/Best_Dim_Sum_in_Hong_Kong

I'm starting to wonder if you just had a bad experience at Tim Ho Wan. Everyone else I know thinks it's great. At any rate, I'll get to find out for myself this December.

James July 21, 2011 at 8:17 AM  

I think it gets the star just because of the quality to price ratio. Because the price is so low, the score is very high.

I would say the taste is equivalent to NBC in Monterey Park, but the price is something like $1 per dish.

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gastro bits is a blog that juxtaposes the geeky with the foodie; it is an attempt to be educational about food, yet entertaining at the same time.
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