Dumpling-free Hong Kong

Hong Kong is changing. On a four-day tour of the city's culinary highlights, you can avoid the dumpling, but not the theme restaurant.

Published February 18, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

I've spent much of my time over the past 12 years traveling around Asia, but I didn't take the plunge and find a place to live here until this year. In April, I signed a one-year lease on a house in Bali. Indonesia's been in the news a bit more than one would like recently, but Bali, I am happy to report, has been blissfully dull. The biggest event on the island this year was the cremation of the last rajah of Gianyar, a massive, gaudy party with traffic jams that made the Santa Monica Freeway at 5 p.m. look like a country lane. There's also a big kite contest going on at the moment, but I'm not here to tell you about Bali.

If you stay in Indonesia on a tourist visa, you must leave every 60 days to renew it. We pseudo-ex-pats call it a visa run. The most popular destination is Singapore, because it's the closest and the cheapest, and you can buy all the good Western stuff they don't sell in Bali. But on my last visa run, I decided to go to Hong Kong. I hadn't been there since 1996, when everyone was in a bother about the imminent hand-over of the crown colony to China. There was ominous talk of a brain drain, the impending death of democracy and, worst of all, a decline in capital. Most of the scare talk came from the Brits; I vividly recall my guide, a well-educated Chinese woman in her mid-20s, telling me, "Even if things get worse, it will be better, because we will be with China again."

I wanted to see for myself if things really were better or worse.

The most obvious difference this time was arriving at the new airport. No one who ever landed at Kai Tak, the old airport which closed to commercial airline traffic in 1998, will ever forget it: It was one of the most thrilling aeronautical experiences a civilian could have. The plane swooped out of the sky over Kowloon and dropped through the skyscrapers onto the single runway. Pilots had to undergo special training and licensing before they were permitted to land there. Once you were on the ground it was a terrible airport, virtually devoid of services and obviously too small for such a busy port.

The new airport at Chek Lap Kok, miles out of town on a patch of reclaimed land on Lantau Island, is everything a new airport should be, a vast ultra-modern palace of glass and steel, a smoothly functioning machine (once they got all the bugs out -- the first few weeks were a disaster). But I missed Kai Tak. The new airport lacks character; it's almost indistinguishable from the vast ultra-modern palace of glass and steel they built for the new airport in Kuala Lumpur. These new monster terminals in Asia have the same agenda as the cathedrals of medieval Europe: Make the visitor feel tiny and insignificant, and do a lot of walking.

There are a lot of interesting things to do in Hong Kong, but if you've been there before, the most enticing activities are shopping and eating. I'm not much of a shopper, though I did break down and buy a digital camera so I could send snapshots home. With a bit of haggling I beat the best price I could find in the U.S. by $50. However, I'm an expert eater, and there's no better place in the world to do it. Hong Kongers are the foodiest people in Asia, with the possible exception of Tokyo. They love to eat out here, and they are as finicky as New Yorkers. If your shop's noodles are too limp, or not limp enough, you'll be out of business soon.

On my first few visits to Hong Kong, I explored the fabulous universe of Chinese food: Succulent Peking duck, delicate Cantonese, fiery Sichuan, rich Shanghainese, exotic Chiu Chow and that world unto itself, dim sum. It ruined Chinese food at home forever. But on this trip, it wasn't Chinese food I was hankering after. The main advantage to living in Asia, as opposed to traveling here, is that you can eat at home. What's more, you don't have to be rich to have a maid who will cook it for you, and do the washing up after. I love Indonesian food -- it's rich, oily and spicy, like the food I grew up with in Texas. But every once in a while I get homesick for a steak, for real pasta, for something cooked in butter and smothered with a fancy sauce, served after the soup and before they bring the dessert menu.

That's a problem throughout much of Asia -- it's just not in the culture. Families eat at home, and if they go out, it's more for the fun of it than what we in the West rather dourly call "fine dining." And generally, they want to eat the same food they would have at home. In Bangkok, the locals like to go out for Thai; in Jakarta, Indonesian food is amazingly popular. The restaurants serving foreign cuisines throughout most of the region exist almost entirely for foreigners, the tourists and ex-pat residents. There are hundreds of restaurants in Bali catering to the island's visitors, but almost none of them measure up to even a casual international standard. A week before I left for Hong Kong I met an American friend for lunch at the Chedi, one of the swankiest hotels on the island. Salads and sandwiches with wine, dessert with coffee came to $85 for the two of us. The view of the rice fields was lovely, but the food was ordinary at best. In New York or San Francisco the place would be DOA.

Right, my story is about Hong Kong. It goes without saying that Chinese food is hugely popular here, since there's no better food anywhere on earth (with the possible exception of a certain barbecue place in Port Arthur, Texas, but never mind). However, Hong Kongers aren't only finicky, they're cosmopolitan. If you go to a Spanish or an Italian restaurant and if the place is crowded, all the faces there may well be Chinese. So I decided to take a dumpling-free tour of Hong Kong, to try as many different cuisines as I could. It was only a four-day trip, so I didn't get around to trying out any of the Russian, Scandinavian or British restaurants -- but then, I never bother with them at home in New York, either.

My Indonesian buddy Rendy, who had never been to Hong Kong, came along for the ride. We stayed at the Harbour Plaza, a huge new hotel in Hung Hom, Kowloon. It's a bit off the beaten track, but a nearby ferry offers regular service to Hong Kong Central, and the rooftop pool commands spectacular views. It's also a bit goofy: When I arrived, the hotel had been transformed into a Caribbean theme park. A Jamaican steel drum band was playing in the lobby, next to a pile of sand with a dinghy perched atop, arrayed with caged parrots. The Chinese man at the reception desk, who was wearing a tropical-print shirt and a straw hat, informed me that the chain is opening a new property in Grand Cayman. It was the first theme experience in a trip that would prove to have a theme theme.

My priority was steak. A friend had told me that the signature restaurant at the Harbour Plaza, the Harbour Grill, had the best steaks in Hong Kong, so I made a reservation for dinner there as soon as we got to the room. The Harbour Grill, like most haute-cuisine restaurants in Asia, is posh to a degree that seems a bit quaint from a Western perspective: It's furnished in fake French antiques, with lavish displays of fake flowers, dramatic spotlights and tuxedoed waiters who murmur. But there it was on the menu -- "The Best Beef in Town." The Harbour Plaza has an exclusive with Stock Yards Packing Co. of Chicago, which, the menu informed me, "has been supplying America's most exclusive steak houses with steak for over 100 years. Their magnificent meat cuts are individually weighed, hand-trimmed and inspected before shipment. It is this careful attention to quality that makes their steaks so juicy and tender."

Everything they said was true. My rib-eye steak was juicy and tender, and it could have been a textbook illustration of medium rare (even at some good restaurants in the States, I find, they think you really mean "medium" but are afraid of being uncool). It was served with a perfect biarnaise sauce, french fries, slightly underdone garden vegetables and Frank Sinatra's greatest hits. It was everything a steak dinner should be, but I confess I was a bit disappointed. I eat steak rarely, but when I do, I find it's like taking a secret puff on a cigarette when you're quitting -- the event never measures up to the expectation. It's only a steak. We eat fish every day in Bali, and I had been thinking about that steak for weeks before the trip, but nonetheless I found myself eyeing Rendy's Dover sole enviously.

Since it was his first visit to Hong Kong, we had to go to Victoria Peak to take in the spectacular view. The last time I was in Hong Kong, they had just begun to build a new viewing tower, and I was curious to see what it was like. Peak Tower is a massive titanium fortress, with a bizarrely shaped anvil-looking thing suspended above the viewing terrace. I'm afraid it had the same effect on me that the new airport had: The old terrace was just fine. The new tower justifies its existence by giving children a chance to wheedle their parents into taking them to Ripley's Believe-It-or-Not and the Rise of the Dragon, "a spectacular ride that brings Hong Kong's colorful past to life, designed by the creators of the 'Jaws' and 'Earthquake' rides at Universal Studios, USA." Hooray. But it was a clear day, and the view had its usual effect on the jaw.

For lunch we had delicious tempura and cold buckwheat noodles at a Japanese restaurant called Yorohachi. I was trying to find a Mexican restaurant, which had apparently gone out of business, but when I saw three Japan Airlines stewardesses going into Yorohachi, we followed them. The restaurant is in a short, crooked street in Central called Lan Kwai Fong. Originally a strip of ex-pat gin mills, Lan Kwai Fong is now lined with chic, pricey restaurants representing every major cuisine in the world except Chinese, and they're jammed with local office workers at lunchtime.

A competitor to Lan Kwai Fong has sprung up in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, on a little lane called Knutsford Terrace. We had dinner there at a restaurant called El Cid: Tasty anchovy toast and potato salad, followed by a delightful paella, with a pitcher of robust sangria. The decor was as kitschy as the name, and the strolling musicians played Mexican, not Spanish, music. In other words, it was like most Spanish restaurants everywhere in the world except Spain. There were a few Japanese tourists, but otherwise the place was full of Hong Kongers. Afterward we stopped off for a nightcap at a Bahama Mama's, a Caribbean theme bar next to the restaurant, but it reminded me too much of the hotel, so we headed for Delaney's. Walk in the door and you're transported to a pub in Dublin, complete with whimsical, vintage Guinness posters. Delaney's has recently reopened in a new location, but no effort was spared to make the place look authentic. The walls were even streaked with a golden wash, to simulate the patina of decades of cigarette smoke.

The most enjoyable culinary event of the trip was a visit to an entertainment restaurant called Igor's. The theme is Hollywood horror: Cocktails in the King Tut bar (which, for some reason, has a boa constrictor hanging from the rafters), then a hokey haunted house populated by surly hunchbacks and ghouls and finally a medieval banqueting hall hung with gruesome portraits of vampires and witches. Before the show began, the M.C., an actor in Bela Lugosi get-up, asked the tourists to stand. There were a group of Japanese girls, a Singaporean family, an Australian couple, one Indonesian and one American. The other 100 or so customers were all locals.

Places like this are always more fun than I expect them to be. The show was a ridiculous rock musical borrowing liberally from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," which revolved around the insatiable sexual appetite of Vampira, who is courted by a blond knight of uncertain sexuality named Sir Wanksalot. His main attraction is his spiky, 2-foot-long bad thing, which looks like an overgrown armadillo. In the last act, he is transformed into Sir Elvis Wanksalot (complete with a fringed, white satin canopy for the hunk-o' hunk-o' burnin' love). This is communism? How ironic that this bawdy pastiche of American entertainment is being performed in China for the Chinese. If it came to New York, Mayor Giuliani would probably shut it down as a danger to public morality.

The food was fine, though it put me off to see the roast beef and ham being carved on a plastic sculpture of a corpse. The theme should stop where the food begins. Hong Kong seems to be going theme-crazy. There's another elaborate new entertainment restaurant called the Hong Kong Puzzle, where the theme is local history, but I decided against learning while I ate. Theme bars are springing up everywhere as well. There's the Bruce Lee Cafe; the concept is camp, but at least it makes sense here. My favorite is a place tersely named the Sex Bar, which has museum displays of items such as a mechanical flogging device and a pair of masturbating machines, one for boys and one for girls. Don't ask.

We also tried a disappointing Australian restaurant in Quarry Bay, and ate hamburgers that were actually bad. If that's what you want, in Asia you're better off at McDonald's or Wendy's than at high-priced places with names like "The Great American Hamburger Joint." On a lazy hotel day I checked pasta off the list with an excellent mess of carbonara at the Harbour Plaza's Italian restaurant/late-night pub. Dino's has a Formula One racing theme, with a fake race car poised on a track in the middle of the dining room.

By the last day, all that cholesterol was taking its toll on my liver, which has grown accustomed to a diet of fish, fruit and rice, so I signed up for something called the Healthy Living Tour, which is given by the Hong Kong Tourist Association. The morning begins bright and early with a Qiqong martial arts class, complete with a recording of bamboo flute music on the boom box. Then we toured a famous Chinese traditional pharmacy called Eu Yan Sang, to see the thousand-dollar ginseng roots. After a midmorning snack of bird's nest soup, we wandered through the Nam Pak Hong district, where they sell traditional medicaments such as dried seahorses and deer penises. It was a fascinating tour, and I recommend it.

Not least for the lunch, a special tonic menu at a place called the Treasure Inn, in the top floor of the Western Market, an Edwardian brick building over-restored as only the British know how to do it. Everything on the menu did something good for you: Lotus leaves to improve the circulation, lily bulbs to improve the eyesight. Or was it the other way around? Anyway, it was all good for the palate. You didn't really think I would go to Hong Kong and not eat Chinese food, did you?

By Jamie James

Jamie James writes for the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly and other publications.

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