Hong kong recommendations

Fabulous dim sum at Lei Garden (IFC) today. I have to say Lei Garden is to Sea Harbour as Sea Harbour is to Minnesota dim sum. A completely different level: the technique on display in some dishes was breathtaking.

Have reservations for lunch at Lung King Heen on Monday–should be able to sample dim sum and a la carte. A good thing as the absence of our hosts complicates the evening childcare situation: we’re not comfortable asking their housekeeper to do anything beyond the bare minimum for us. I mean, I’m sure she’d be happy to watch them (as she would have if our friends were here) but it feels a bit presumptuous for us to ask her if they haven’t left those instructions with her, and I’m certainly not going to call them in India in the middle of all the mourning to confirm that!

Yep. Try it for dinner if you get the chance.

Also in IFC try the wonton noodles at Tasty Noodles:

I wrote up our meal at Yat Lok on the blog. Pictures are there; here’s the writeup:

http://myannoyingopinions.com/2016/02/11/yat-lok

I still have a couple of meal reports from our recent trip to Delhi to come but I thought I would start on our Hong Kong meals as well. We stopped in Hong Kong our way back from Delhi. We were supposed to be staying with friends but due to a family emergency we only ended up staying in their house—they were back in India while we were there. We had a lot of eating planned with them but managed quite well on our own. Hong Kong is one of those cities where, if you like Chinese food, it is kind of difficult to not eat well. It helped though that I was armed with a lot of recommendations. We ate across the price spectrum while we were there, and one of the very best meals was one of the cheapest and certainly the simplest: at Yat Lok on Stanley Street in the Central district.

Yat Lok has other things on their menu as well but they’re known most for one thing: their roast goose. It’s a family owned operation and apparently there’s a secret family recipe for the goose: whatever it is, they know what they’re doing. Pretty much everybody at the restaurant while we were there (and it was packed to the gills) was eating something that involved their roast goose. And man, that goose is dynamite, and completely justifies the hype.

A quick word on that hype: Yat Lok now has a Michelin star. Some say that this is because Michelin is trying very hard to respond to criticisms of elitism in their prior Hong Kong rankings (this is also the reason advanced by some for the star given to the no-frills dim sum purveyor Tim Ho Wan). That may well be true but I can tell you that we enjoyed our simple lunch here more than dinner at a much fancier Michelin starred Sichuan restaurant a few days later. But let’s not get too hung up about the Michelin star. It certainly shouldn’t lead you to expect much by way of ambience or even comfort.

The restaurant, as you will see in the pictures below, is almost literally a hole in the wall, and unless you’re paying attention, or can read Chinese, quite easy to miss even if you’re right on it. Once you’re confident you’re there you enter through a small door and realize that there isn’t very much more to the restaurant beyond it. A small, somewhat cramped dining room with a not very dry floor and tiny tables very close to each other. You sit down and a harried waitress who speaks almost no English comes to take your order. You point at the things you want to be sure you’re communicating effectively (luckily the menu has English translations on it) and wait for it to arrive, which it does quite soon’ish. If you want water you pay for it; if you want napkins, you pay for them. But once the goose arrives it’s hard to care about these things (if you cared about them to begin with).

It’s hard to describe the goose. Well, that’s not true; it’s easy enough to describe it: perfectly lacquered and crisped skin with melting fat under it that has further tenderized the succulent meat below. But the description, accurate though it is, doesn’t quite convey the perfection of the goddamned thing. I don’t know how they do it, I don’t know what goes into their brine and marinade, I don’t know what the quality of the birds they use is, but I would have been happy eating that goose every day that we were there—and it took some effort not to as we passed close to Yat Lok every evening on our way home. It’s a different matter that my heart would have given out if I’d eaten that goose every day for four days.

But the goose is not all we had (and we got a quarter of a bird from the bottom): we got a soy sauce steamed chicken for the boys and that was pretty damned good too. We got some greens to cut the fat of the birds and a giant bowl of noodle soup just to be safe. The noodle soup was probably completely unnecessary but then again noodle soup in Hong Kong is rarely unnecessary (we’d learnt this early that morning as we ate a rather hefty breakfast on arrival at the airport location of Crystal Jade—more on this next week).

All of this came to HKD 340 or maybe a bit less. I can’t remember the exact amount as the restaurant is cash only. It should be said that this isn’t cheap per se: almost $50 US. But it’s worth every penny and then some (well, maybe not the noodle soup). I hope to stop at Hong Kong regularly on my trips to India, which are going to become annual rather than biennial, and I think it’s going to be hard to not come back to Yat Lok on the next visit as well (especially as their roast pork is said to be excellent as well).

That said, as one of my friends noted, there’s a lot of excellent roast goose in Hong Kong and it might be worthwhile to check out the competition as well. I should add that the original location is not the Stanley Street one that we ate at—one of the things we discovered is that every successful restaurant in Hong Kong seemingly has at least one branch elsewhere in the city; will it count as diversifying my roast goose exposure if I go to the mothership on the next trip?

Coming next week: a dumpling and noodle soup-heavy writeup!

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Now for my writeup of three meals at Crystal Jade (two at the airport, one at the IFC location).

The pictures with descriptions of the food are on the blog: http://myannoyingopinions.com/2016/02/18/crystal-jade/ – here is the rest of the writeup:

A sign you’ve married well: you get off a redeye flight from New Delhi to Hong Kong with two small children in tow and suggest to your partner that the first thing you do is sit down at the airport location of Crystal Jade for some dumplings and noodles and she excitedly agrees. This, by the way, is something all visitors arriving in Hong Kong should do, whatever the time of day. You’ve got to get your trip off to an auspicious start. Of course, it’s not like this will be your only opportunity to eat at Crystal Jade. The Singapore-based chain has >100 branches in Asia (and a couple in San Francisco too, apparently) and Hong Kong has 21 of them.

This is a good place to note that, unlike in the US, the fact that a restaurant is part of a chain is not really a mark against it in Hong Kong (or India for that matter). As I noted in passing in my writeup of Yat Lok last week, almost every successful restaurant in Hong Kong seems to have multiple locations (in fact, we ate at one place that has multiple locations right around the corner from each other!), and this cuts right across price and status lines. With 21 locations, though, Crystal Jade is approaching fast food ubiquity—and if that seems like a lot consider that they have 36 outlets in Singapore. Not all outlets serve the same things, as far as I could make out from their website. The empire includes different “culinary concepts” and these are distributed differently in different markets (see at right for the full list). Hong Kong seems to have most of them but the two things we were most interested in were dumplings and noodles and as luck would have it both the airport branch and the branch at the International Finance Center mall (IFC), where we spent a fair bit of time eating, are Crystal Jade La Mian Xiao Long Bao locations.

In four days in Hong Kong we ate at Crystal Jade three times. Immediately on arrival at the airport, dinner at their IFC location, and again right before departure at the airport (almost missing our flight in the process—it’s important to keep your priorities in order). The airport location is more informal, as you would expect, and has a much more abbreviated menu than the fancier space inside the IFC. In Hong Kong as in India there appears to be no stigma associated with restaurants in malls—in fact the tony Four Seasons hotel, and its lauded restaurant Lung King Heen are attached to the IFC as well. Based on our experience though I am tempted to say that the airport location might actually be better! Service was more attentive and friendlier there and the staff also spoke more English—not a surprise at the international airport. On a side note we were surprised at how much less English is spoken in Hong Kong vs. Singapore: not only did servers at most restaurants have minimal to no English, most cabdrivers seemed to have none either. At the IFC Crystal Jade this meant that when we were trying to figure out where some of our ordered food was it was all but impossible to communicate with passing servers—a couple of young kids out on a date finally took pity on us and translated (they also helpfully explained the local tipping protocol to me at the end of the meal: no tipping!).

Anyway, service is not the only reason for liking the airport location. The dumplings were much better there. It’s likely that the small menu there allows for far greater attention to detail. For an example, see the picture of the XLB at the IFC location in the slideshow below: you’ll notice that one of the dumplings has unsightly congealed meat juices poking out of the top. At both our meals at the airport the XLB were pristine (they tasted great at both locations) and at the first meal (eaten right after the restaurant had opened) the noodles were freshly prepared as well (you can see the chefs making them). I don’t mean to suggest that the IFC location is anything approaching bad: the food there was very good too. It’s just that after eating at the airport we’d thought, “Wow, the dumplings at the airport are so much better than anything anywhere in the US, we can’t imagine how good they’re going to be in the city”, and it turned out they were in fact made with less care.

By the way, Hong Kong is a great place to eat with kids. Cantonese food, with its mildness and all its noodle soups, congees and dumplings, is very kid-friendly. At most meals we didn’t have to get things for them that we weren’t that interested in eating ourselves. The one dodgy bit is that if you have food allergies to worry about (we have a kid allergic to many kinds of nuts) it can be a challenge figuring out what’s in the food (see the English issue above). Luckily, we didn’t have to contend with any bad decisions on this front.

For what we ate on all three occasions and brief comments on the dishes see the slideshow below. I have to apologize for the fact that I don’t have the exact names of the dishes down. I foolishly assumed there’d be menus on their website but I couldn’t find one. As a result the names of most dishes below are really descriptions.

http://myannoyingopinions.com/2016/02/18/crystal-jade/

These were all relatively affordable meals (and I’m glad to note that, unlike at Yat Lok, we didn’t have to pay for water or napkins!) The airport meals were in the region of $30 US and the IFC meal came in at a little less than $50. By the way, when I raved about the airport branch on Food Talk Central a member there noted he often puts up with going through security while on layovers just to eat there. I can tell you I would be very happy to do the same. Anyway, people in San Francisco, what can you tell me about the Crystal Jade outlets there? And I noticed that there’s an outlet in Delhi/Gurgaon as well—I’m definitely going to check that one out when I’m back in Delhi later this year.

Guilty as charged.

Hope you at least did Lei Garden once if you did Crystal Jade x 3!

Yes, as noted upthread. Review coming next week.

Never understood the nonsense in the 90s about how Chinese food in London, Sydney and Vancouver were beginning to eclipse HK.

It’s just so much better in HK.

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I thought it was just beginning to approach HK, not eclipse it.

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And here is my writeup of that dim sum meal: http://myannoyingopinions.com/2016/02/23/lei-garden-dim-sum/

My friends and enemies alike in Minnesota are sick of hearing how much better dim sum in the San Gabriel Valley is than dim sum in the Twin Cities. Well, I can now report that the better dim sum in Hong Kong is to a place like Sea Harbour in the SGV as Sea Harbour is to anything in Minnesota: several levels beyond. The basis for this claim is a mindbogglingly good meal we had a few Saturdays ago at Lei Garden in the International Finance Center in Hong Kong. We’d wanted to eat at least one fancy dim sum meal and Lei Garden, with its Michelin star, was our pick.

In both my Hong Kong reviews so far (Yat Lok and Crystal Jade) I’ve noted that almost every successful restaurant there seems to have multiple locations. Well, there are ten branches of Lei Garden in the city. That’s quite a bit behind Crystal Jade’s 21 but a couple of years ago eight of the ten apparently held Michelin stars. That number is now down to six, but the IFC location is still among them. Well, I can tell you that their Michelin star does not rest on their service at weekend dim sum. Service was patchy, uncommunicative and not likely to be mistaken for friendly. This was not just our experience but also that of the tables around us that had locals at them (and you can read more accounts of the same on Open Rice—Hong Kong’s version of Yelp). But the food, oh the food.

I’m not sure if I will be able to fully explain just why/how this meal was so superior to any dim sum we’ve had at Sea Harbour or Elite in the SGV but I’ll give it a shot after the slideshow. Here first is the list of what we ate:

  • Thousand Year Old Egg and Tofu in Sichuan Chilli Sauce
  • Braised Chicken Feet with Abalone Sauce
  • Steamed Shanghainese Pork Dumplings x 2
  • Steamed Superior Soup Stuffed Dumpling with Crab Meat
  • Steamed Dumpling with Pork, Dried Shrimp, Chive and Preserved Vegetable
  • Steamed Rice Noodle Roll with Barbecued Pork
  • Pan-Fried Turnip Cake with Mushroom and Pork
  • Deep-Fried Rice Paper Roll with Minced Carp, Chinese Celery, Celery and Tribute Vegetable
  • Deep-Fried Cuttlefish Mouth with Salt and Pepper
  • Baked Egg Tart

Descriptions of the dishes are in the slideshow captions. There were effectively two of us eating so we couldn’t do too much damage. We had our boys with us and they ate some things, but because of when we were eating they’d already had breakfast at home.

[slideshow]

So, why was this all so amazing?

First, there’s the matter of technique. Take, for example, the dumpling skins/wrappers: the texture of each was perfect and perfectly suited to the contents. The wrappers on the xiao long bao were sturdy enough that there was no risk of rupture but soft and yielding to the bite and very much not an afterthought once we got to the goodness inside; on the other hand, the wrappers on the pork/veg/chive dumplings were soft, almost spongy, providing an excellent textural contrast to the crunchy contents. And the dumplings were sealed so artfully as to be almost seamless.

That’s just part of it; the technique on the fried dishes was amazing: not one hint of grease in the deep-fried items but more importantly textural contrasts were maintained while getting them to the perfect crisp; the pan-fried turnip cake was likewise crisped (without charring) on the outside, each piece holding its shape on the chopstick but tender in the mouth (no lumpy bits at all); the deep-fried rice paper roll was a small miracle; and how they got the chicken feet to the silky textural state they were in I have no idea. And then, of course, there’s the question of taste: ingredients clearly were top notch and the cooking was delicate. Not only was the broth in the superior soup excellent, so was the broth in the xiao long bao.

All in all, this is dim sum at a level we’d not only not had before but also hadn’t quite expected. We’d expected it would be better than anything we’d had before but not this much better. But there’s no shame in a place in the US not being this good—I expect most places in Hong Kong aren’t as good. Indeed, we ate dim sum the next day that was very much on the same continuum as the better SGV places. On the other hand, at our lunch at Lung King Heen a few days later we also got a couple of their dim sum selections and those were even better, if such a thing is possible!

Ah yes, price. All of this came to $87 US all-in. It was probably enough food for three hungry adults (though we ate it all), so $29/head. Which is slightly more expensive than dim sum in the Twin Cities that is subpar even by US standards. Such is life. On my next trip, which if all goes well will be in December, I hope to eat dinner at Lei Garden as well (and maybe try to hit up Lung King Heen for full-on dim sum instead).

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Welcome to HK.

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More from Hong Kong, this time at Under Bridge Spicy Crab, the first of two somewhat underwhelming meals on our short trip.

Pictures are on the blog – http://myannoyingopinions.com/2016/02/25/ubsc/ – here is the writeup:

After three reports on excellent Cantonese outings in Hong Kong I now come to the first of two slightly underwhelming meals. As it happens we came to the meal for pretty much the same reason that this review comes when it does: as a break. It was our second night in Hong Kong and we’d already eaten four meals in a row that featured relatively mild flavours, excellent though they were (at Crystal Jade, Yat Lok, Crystal Jade again and at Lei Garden), and had another similar lunch planned for the next day. And so for our second dinner we decided we’d do a meal centered on more robust fare. We couldn’t get into any of the better-reviewed Sichuan places on short notice (though we did get into one of those the next night—more on that next week) but were able to snag a table at one of the three locations of Under Bridge Spicy Crab in the Wan Chai neighbourhood. Herewith our experience.

Not only does Under Bridge Spicy Crab have three locations, these locations are literally next to and around the corner from each other. I guess they’ve decided not to damage their branding by opening somewhere where they wouldn’t be under a bridge. It started out as a street stall some 25 years ago before becoming a mini-institution in the city, apparently beloved of locals and tourists alike. To the latter point, it’s also Anthony Bourdain-approved—and lest you detect any disdain in my reference to it being tourist or Bourdain-approved, please keep in mind that all of this is true of Yat Lok as well. The restaurants are in the typhoon shelter crab genre: places that have their origins in traditional shelters in which fishermen would wait out typhoons and eat simple seafood dishes while doing so. From all accounts, what makes Under Bridge Spicy Crab stand out is their signature spicy chilli-garlic sauce. (Crab is just one thing in their large menu, by the way—there are plenty of other things to eat as well.)

This crab can be got in various sizes—and I can tell you from our experience and from listening to the tables around us—that the reports you will read of servers attempting shameless upsells of crab size are entirely true. We had to battle our server down to what seemed like a likely size for two. The sauce can also be got at various heat levels. And just in case you think spicy in Hong Kong can’t be that hot, let me tell you that we got our crab at the medium level and it was pretty, pretty hot. We got the HKD 580 small crab for two—it was not a problem for two great greedy guts like ourselves to finish it but if you’re in a party of two I’d recommend getting the smallest size (HKD 480 while we were there) and maybe getting another seafood dish alongside. The crab is good but it can get a bit monotonous. And yes, that’s where the “slightly underwhelming” part comes in.

The crab is good and the chilli garlic “sauce” (it’s dry) is good but it was a bit one-dimensional. We got a clam soup alongside, some green beans and some boiled shrimp for the boys, but everything sort of got obliterated by the crab. Maybe the thing to do is to start out with more delicate dishes and build to the crab. We actually tried to do that but, perhaps because we were eating late, they were out of the other things that caught our eye (razor clams and scallops) and we were a little overwhelmed by the large picture menu—we couldn’t tell what might be good or bad choices. I guess what I’m saying is that our slightly underwhelming experience might well have been our fault. That said, as enjoyable as the crab itself was it didn’t rock our world like the fabulous chilli crab in Singapore or even the Southwestern Indian butter-pepper-garlic preparation. Your mileage may vary.

And if you eat at the Lockhart Road outpost your experience may also vary by which floor they put you on. That location is divided between three floors. The ground floor, where one enters, is not attractive but has a charm—but it was full; we were sent up to the second floor, which looked more attractive but was also full; we were then sent up to the third floor, which was altogether more pokey: and our table was right by a pile of empty beer boxes on the floor and quite close to the small bathroom and the table next to us. There were more tables in the back on that level and I’m not sure if they’re more attractive propositions. Anyway, on to the food!

[slideshow] http://myannoyingopinions.com/2016/02/25/ubsc/

All of this came to $133 US. Which, considering we ate some high quality seafood, might not seem too outrageous, but felt like far more than the overall experience merited. It was 1.5x the price of our fabulous dim sum at Lei Garden that morning, for instance, and I couldn’t help feeling that our money would have been better spent/saved, and our palates better pleased elsewhere. If we lived in Hong Kong or were there on a much longer trip I’d likely feel different but I don’t think it’s a must-do if you’re there for a very short while, as we were. Once again, your mileage may vary. If you’ve been I’d be interested to read your take on it too.

Oh, I should say that attempted crazy crab upsell aside, service here was perhaps the friendliest we encountered in Hong Kong. There was an older gent in particular who was very taken with the boys and hung around close to us and kept us plied with wet wipes, napkins and water.

Ah, too bad you didn’t get the crab XLB at Lei Garden. It’s a single XLB about $5 USD.

Even more delicate than the regular and filled with even more juice.

When researching my trip I avoided Under Bridge Spicy Crab for that reason and went to Sai Kung for seafood.

Loving the reports.

That’s what I thought was going to show up when we ordered the “Steamed Superior Soup Stuffed Dumpling with Crab Meat”. But that was a large crab dumpling in a bowl of superior soup. Unless, the crab XLB is only on the Chinese language menu (or somewhere other than the dim sum menu) it wasn’t on offer that day. Neither of the two English language dim sum menus we were given had anything else that would seem to be it. I think I have pictures of those menus too–I’ll see if I can find, resize and upload them here tomorrow.

Well, I’m certainly going back now.

Looks like I had a more favorable experience at under the bridge. Granted I was with locals and they did all the ordering… another item that smokes all versions here in the U.S. I’m also fond of the hardshell green mud crabs. I find them sweeter than Dungeness crabs.

Like I said in the post, it was very far from bad. It just didn’t feel like it was a) quite worth the price and b) the best use of a meal opportunity on a very short trip.

Back to Hong Kong, back to another Porthos recommendation (we sort of did a Porthos food tour of Hong Kong for the most part): here is my writeup of Tasty Congee & Noodle Wantun Shop in the IFC mall. Slideshow with captioned descriptions are in the post on the blog: http://myannoyingopinions.com/2016/03/08/tasty-congee/


After a week off I’m back to reports on our meals in Hong Kong in late January and early February. This is the home stretch—only two more after this, probably. I’m also back in the IFC mall. This was our third meal there and we came back again the next day for an outstanding lunch at Lung King Heen. This, however, was a meal at the far end of the spectrum from Lung King Heen. Which is to say not that it was cheap (though much cheaper than Lung King Heen or even Lei Garden) but that it features very basic Cantonese comfort food: the setting, as befits the IFC location, was also very comfortable indeed; this is no Yat Lok.

As the name of the restaurant tells you, their specialties are congee and wonton soups with noodles. And they’re not over-reaching with the “tasty” they’ve attached to their name. Both the congee and the wonton noodle soup were very good; also very good were the selections from their limited dim sum menu. To this latter point, I remember reading in the LA Weekly (or maybe it was the LA Times) a few years ago an account of a visit by some Hong Kong chefs to Los Angeles. Jonathan Gold, the food writer, took them to eat at Sea Harbour, considered by most to be the pre-eminent dim sum house in the San Gabriel Valley. The chefs praised it, saying it would be a good neighbourhood restaurant in Hong Kong. At the time I thought this was damning with faint praise but this short visit to Hong Kong really drove the comparison home.

As I noted in my Lei Garden review, a place like Sea Harbour is just nowhere near that league, from conception of dishes to execution to variety to quality of ingredients. But how would it stack up to the limited dim sum offerings at a chain specializing in congee and wonton noodle soups? Well, the quality at Tasty Congee was still better for most things, but it is very much on the same continuum. This made us think that the description of Sea Harbour as a good neighbouhood dim sum place in Hong Kong was right on the money and really not an insult at all. Now, you might say I could have saved the time thinking about this and just taken the word of a bunch of Hong Kong chefs…and you would be right.

As mentioned, Tasty Congee is also part of a chain. There are five outposts in Hong Kong, one of which is in the transit area of the airport—which means that you can eat there without having to clear security again. In fact, we had originally thought we’d hit up the airport branch on the way out for a late breakfast but we ended up doing a regular meal at the IFC location instead. I have to admit this was a fallback option after the predictable failure of a low percentage shot at trying to get into Lei Garden again, this time without a reservation: the woman at the front desk all but laughed in my face (it’s true what I was told, people: you have to book weekend dim sum at Lei Garden at least a month out). We’d passed Tasty Congee en route to Lei Garden though and there was a sizable crowd outside and so we were happy enough to go there instead.

There was a wait of about 10 minutes and then we were in. The inside is quite nice but I have to say that in an odd way all the IFC restaurants we ate at (except Lung King Heen, which is not in the IFC proper, I guess) have a very similar design feel despite being quite differently done up. Anyway, this means it was bright and open. Also as with most places there seemed to be one staff person who had a lot of English and she was our point person. We didn’t have difficulties with ordering or service. The restaurant had very brisk turnover the entire time we were there, and seemed very much like a destination for family outings.

What did we eat? Well, we selected a congee from the many varieties on offer—this took a while but we settled on the fish brisket congee. The fish was carp, I believe, and it was perfectly cooked—and the congee itself was excellent (though not very much better than the versions at the airport Crystal Jade). With the wonton noodles we went the simple route and ordered the “House Specialty Wonton Noodles in Soup” (while they spell it “Wantun” in the name of the restaurant, it’s “wonton” on their menu). Very good wontons, very good, springy noodles, very good broth. We also got dry noodles (the same noodles) with brisket—this was just okay, I thought. And we also got, as I noted, a bunch of their dim sum. Their selections were very similar to what’s on offer at most dim sum places in the US—for a few things the quality was on par with the better dim sum places in the SGV, for most it was somewhat better, for some it was a lot better. More details on all this in the captions in the slideshow below.

[slideshow: http://myannoyingopinions.com/2016/03/08/tasty-congee/]

All of this came to $72 USD all-in. Not the most exciting food, maybe, and probably a bit expensive for what it is, but if you like this kind of thing, as we do, it’s worth checking it out in Hong Kong. On price, keep in mind that people with normal appetites would have been happy enough with just the wonton noodle soup and the congee and gotten out for quite a bit less.

Next up from Hong Kong: a Michelin starred Sichuan restaurant that was not as good as our favourite places in the US!

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Glad you liked it. I really like the texture on their congee. In general it’s eye opening having the congee in HK because of the texture and the consistency. I got the chicken, mushroom, abalone one which was very good.

As you mentioned, the noodles and the shrimp in the wontons have a certain snap to them.

Keep these wonderful detailed reports coming! Love the photos.

In case you wondered what Michelin starred Sichuan cuisine in Hong Kong might be like, here is my review of dinner at Qi - House of Sichuan. Pictures are on the blog, write-up is reproduced below. http://myannoyingopinions.com/2016/03/11/qi-house-of-sichuan/


Eating Sichuan food in Hong Kong is probably a bit like eating Mexican food in New York but we couldn’t resist. All the Cantonese food we’d eaten so far on the trip had been so superior to their analogues in the US that it didn’t seem unlikely that the Sichuan food would be too. Then there was the fact that stray dishes with Sichuan flavours that we’d eaten at early meals at Crystal Jade and Lei Garden had been very good indeed. And so we swapped out our original plan of eating a Shanghainese dinner with a reservation at Qi – House of Sichuan, a very well-reviewed restaurant that recently picked up a Michelin star. Even if it wasn’t likely to be as good as eating Sichuan food in Sichuan, we figured it would give our favourites in the San Gabriel Valley a run for their money. Well, it didn’t quite work out that way.

The restaurant is located in a tonier part of Wan Chai than Under Bridge Spicy Crab. It is part of the J Senses “dining and lifestyle” complex, located on the first floor—you go down a side street to get to an elevator that takes you up to the restaurant. The elevator door opens in the restaurant’s foyer and it feels more than a little like you’ve arrived on a Zhang Yimou set. You go down a dark, wood-paneled corridor from which open a number of small dining rooms, at least one of them rather striking (see the slideshow below). The dining room we were seated in was far more restrained, and quite elegant. They also have quite a lot of terrace seating. The staff are all quite fluent in English and we had no difficulties with communication.

This is not, I should say, in case it isn’t already clear, a cheap restaurant. A lot of money has gone into the decor and they seem, based on our limited experience, to be having quite a lot of success in attracting a well-to-do expat crowd. They also seem to be having success, in particular, in attracting quite a few Indian expats—there were a couple of tables full of stylish, young Indian executive types around us over the course of the evening. It made me wonder if the Sichuan and Thai restaurants around town (I’m not sure what the Indian restaurant scene is like) draw more expats from countries with more robust cuisines than the bigger name Cantonese restaurants do. Wouldn’t surprise me if if true, but who knows if it’s actually true.

It does seem, however, like the food at Qi has been fine tuned for the Cantonese palate—more on this below. See the slideshow for what we ate and brief descriptions. We were more constrained than we usually are in our ordering in that our hectic eating itinerary meant we couldn’t take leftovers back to our friends’ home (not when they weren’t in town to eat them), and since we also had the boys with us we had to order a couple of things they were likely to eat. Beyond that we went with our server’s recommendations of dishes that would show the range of the restaurant.

[slideshow: http://myannoyingopinions.com/2016/03/11/qi-house-of-sichuan/]

So, what was it all like? Well, the cooking was excellent and the ingredients were top-notch (and everything was attractively presented). But, as I noted above, things seem to have been toned down a little. Take the wontons in chilli oil for instance. These were by far the best wontons I’ve ever had in a Sichuan restaurant: from the wrappers to the steaming to the filling, there was nothing rushed about their preparation. But the dressing lacked the bright heat and unctuous oiliness we’re used to and which we prefer. Likewise for the mouthwatering chicken—which similarly used the best poached chicken I’ve ever had in any version of the dish—and the mapo tofu—which also used far firmer tofu than we’re used to.

The menu too is very limited—leave aside the San Gabriel Valley stalwarts, there’s far less variety on it than on the menu of our Minnesota favourite, Grand Szechuan, and far, far fewer funky items. The restaurant says they’re trying to incorporate all the flavours of Sichuan cooking, not just the mouth-numbing and the hot, but it feels like there’s some concession made here to the milder Cantonese palate in the process of coming up with a refined version of Sichuan food; and the menu certainly also has a greater proportion of milder and sweeter Sichuan dishes than do those of the restaurants we are used to. This may also, of course, partly explain the Michelin star. I want to clarify that I’m not saying that Sichuan food cannot be refined or that it necessarily loses its “soul” when refined. Szechuan Impression in the San Gabriel Valley is a very good example of a restaurant that goes down that path while not sacrificing the more uncompromising aspects of the cuisine.

I will say that the most successful dish was probably one of the more Cantonese-friendly ones: the sugar glazed ginger and scallion beef; the sauteed fish fillet with glazed sugar and vinegar was also quite good but you should know that what you will get when you order it is essentially excellent sweet and sour fish. We were not expecting this—elsewhere on the menu sweet and sour chicken was named as such—and so were a little disappointed at first, but it was very well done.

So, though we enjoyed the food fine we left with the unexpected judgment that we preferred not only the best of the San Gabriel Valley (Chengdu Taste, Szechuan Impression) to Qi by some margin but also the Twin Cities’ own Grand Szechuan. This was also far more expensive than all those places: all the food above, some beer and tax brought the final bill to $118 (USD). I probably wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re visiting from some place with no decent Sichuan restaurants at all—which is also the only basis on which I’d recommend eating Mexican food in New York.

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