World's food in Hong Kong

I go to Rome and I know that there will be prosciutto in my days, bucatini in my nights. I go to Lisbon with an uncontestable agenda of the shellfish and the sausage that the Portuguese cook so enviably.

I go to Hong Kong with just a blank menu to be filled in any number of ways. That's what I love about it.

Technically, Hong Kong's cuisine is Cantonese and you should fit some dim sum into your dining. But what distinguishes this electrifying city is its almost unrivalled culinary internationalism.

It is not just a global crossroads for business. It is a global crossroads for food, one of a handful of commercial capitals, like New York and London, that have no particular concentration of ambitious, accomplished restaurants in any one genre. The most appealing and important places cut across all traditions.

During a visit I made to Hong Kong in 2013, two of the new spots drawing the most chatter were a Mexican restaurant, Brickhouse, and a Japanese yakitori, Yardbird.

When I returned recently and took a fresh inventory of newcomers that had generated significant enthusiasm, the list included many restaurants with Mediterranean moorings - Spanish, French, Italian or an amalgam of those.

One restaurant advertised a melding of Italian and Japanese. A spot specialising in upscale American hamburgers was a big hit, as was one specialising in Japanese curry.

And that's not counting the five standouts described below. Suffice it to say that in this one polyglot city across one hungry week, I ate the whole wide world.

SOUVLA

Greeks like to think that they have some special secret for octopus that is tenderer than anywhere else, but they would be hard-pressed to outdo the kitchen here, which sculpted and arranged the thin columns of pale pink flesh into a sort of pyramid. It was octopus Legos.

I am an ardent fan of taramasalata, that Greek (and Turkish) spread of smoked fish roe and olive oil, and Souvla's achieved the perfect pitch of saltiness, along with an ethereal creaminess.

Those two dishes came towards the start of our meal, and I figured that they would be the high points. But there were taller peaks ahead.

One was gemista, a hearty, earthy casserole of potatoes, tomato sauce and peppers stuffed with rice.

The other was the slow-cooked lamb, ribbons of meltingly soft leg meat placed next to a glittering relish of pomegranate and a glass bottle filled with a tangy yogurt dressing.

While Souvla covers the hoary classics - spanakopita, moussaka - it gives some of them a facelift and it tacks on a long list of elaborate speciality cocktails, the focal point of a lively bar scene.

Souvla, 1/F Ho Lee Commercial Building, 40 D'Aguilar Street, Central; conceptcreations.hk/souvla/souvla-lan-kwai-fong. Dinner for two, without drinks or tip, averages HK$1,150 (S$199).

NUR

The main dining room opens to a terrace several storeys above the streets of central Hong Kong. On the night when I dined here, a gentle breeze blew in.

But that was not all that the terrace provided. Some leaf, shoot or blossom had come from the greenery out there, mere strides away. Forget farm-to-table, this was patio-to-table - and a vivid illustration of Nur's stated commitment to local products.

The restaurant's name recognises the first syllable of the chef's name (Nurdin Topham) as well as the Arabic word for "light".

Its website lays out Topham's belief in a restrained, healthful discipline he calls "nourishing gastronomy" and his past involvement in "a somewhat unorthodox project - the deliciousness of insects".

Nur does not give you any choices. It serves just one tasting menu of nine courses including dessert. They came in rapid enough succession that I never felt overwhelmed.

There were orbs of heirloom tomato with a texture almost like sorbet and a pool of tomato water around them. A subsequent dish combined salmon eggs with walnuts and horseradish yogurt.

Squid, paired with charred onions and lemon basil, was exquisitely supple and sweet, and dessert was a fitting, fetching cap to a meal with such a vegetal, herbaceous bent: ice cream that tasted like French onion soup.

I had a glass of white Burgundy, followed by a glass of Barolo, from a wine list that covered many of Europe's highlights.

Nur, 1 Lyndhurst Terrace, Third Floor, Central; nur.hk. Dinner for two, without drinks or tip, comes to about HK$2,375.

CHACHAWAN

Chachawan opens wide to the street, with the sidewalk almost acting as its vestibule.

This befits its air of scruffy, ragtag informality and a menu that is inspired in part by street food from Thailand, or, to be more specific, the north-eastern province of Isan.

That is how narrowly focused this restaurant is and that is how ethnically ambitious Hong Kong can get. With the cooking of Isan, you get ample spice. You get serious fire.

One dish almost brought me to my knees. It looked so innocent, so pretty, a salad with a bright, approachable medley of colours and textures, courtesy of green papaya, cherry tomatoes, dried shrimp, peanuts.

But there were a few small chillies lurking in there and they soon enough registered their presence in my throat and in my gut, which was suddenly a cauldron.

Chachawan was worth the burn. Not every dish carried that risk, but nearly every dish had the interplay of contrasting effects that are at the heart of Southeast Asian cooking.

In the Larp Moo, a wet mix of chopped pork, pork skin and mint needed something dry and firm, so it got that, from leaves of cool iceberg to be used as wraps. Sweet and sour, sugar and spice, cold and hot: These were the currents that ran through most of the dishes.

Chachawan, 206 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan; chachawan.hk. Dinner for two, without drinks or tip, averages HK$675.

ABERDEEN STREET SOCIAL

This restaurant is as polished and refined as Chachawan is hectic. It spreads out over two storeys that include a downstairs bar, outdoor terraces and an upstairs dining room that is dominated by dark woods. The servers are numerous, proper and hovering.

And the prices reflect this. Especially if you order wine from Aberdeen's widely ranging list, the bill can climb high.

The restaurant is affiliated with the English chef Jason Atherton, a Gordon Ramsay protege with a rapidly growing international roster, including several previous places in Hong Kong.

His menu here has been called "modern British", a culinary phrase that, like "new American", tends to be elastic. In Aberdeen's case, it means the existence of British staples and British conventions complemented by Asian, Mediterranean influences.

So while the starters I encountered included a pig's trotter with black pudding for the Anglophile, there was also tuna tataki with ponzu dressing, not to mention a tomato salad with Italian burrata cheese.

I was especially impressed with two entrees, a sublime pork chop served with a red pepper relish and slices of lamb rump dusted with a "kidney powder" that teased out the meat's muskiness.

My companions and I savoured these at a spacious table next to a glass wall that let just the right amount of light onto our meal.

Aberdeen Street Social, JPC G/Floor, 35 Aberdeen Street, Central; aberdeenstreetsocial.hk. Dinner for two, without drinks or tip, averages about HK$1,450.

HO LEE FOOK

The pork at Ho Lee Fook was nearly life-changing. I mean the strips of pork char siew, which refers to a Cantonese method of cooking the meat over fire and giving it a sweet red glaze.

Char siew is a staple of Chinese takeout, but I have never had takeout that uses Berkshire pigs from Japan.

When that calibre of flesh meets this method of preparation, the results are a fatty knockout.

Then again, almost everything I had at Ho Lee Fook wowed me. The restaurant fuses Cantonese with other Asian traditions as well as any flourishes that the chef, Jowett Yu, deems appropriate.

It is thrillingly unbound, never letting precedent get in the way of deliciousness.

My favourite dish comprised slices of wagyu short rib that were arranged on one side of the bone, a shallot kimchi on the other side and a jalapeno puree through which either or both could be swept.

The way the heat of that puree cut the richness of the beef was exhilarating.

The menu sprawls across a half-dozen categories, including "raw", "roast meat" and "vegetables". There are fried chicken wings as well as hot-and-sour steak tartare and cabbage-and-pork dumplings.

Reservations are taken only for groups of five or more; others wait at nearby bars for the hostess to summon them back. It can take an hour or more.

And it's worth it, for a feast that's a bevy of culinary traditions in one - much like Hong Kong.

Ho Lee Fook, 1-5 Elgin Street, Central; holeefook.com.hk. Dinner for two, without drinks or tip, averages HK$1,050.


This article was first published on Jan 28, 2015.
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