Hong Kong is a fascinating city — one showcasing Chinese culture in a sophisticated, worldly way that often feels more international than it does expressly Chinese. It’s an easy city to get around in, both in terms language (English is widely spoken) and in navigation, from Hong Kong Island and Central to the short distance across the Bay to the Kowloon side.
Sailing amid HK’s many islands is one of the best activities in the city, as is a trek up to Victoria Peak — high on the list for any first time visitor. Though smog is sure to dominate, it is the most dramatic vista of the densely packed city. I particularly loved the cheap, easy Star Ferry back and forth between HK Island and Kowloon at dusk when the lights of a seemingly endless hodgepodge of skyscrapers light up.
The city is lined with a shocking number of malls — welcome escapes in the intense heat when one can remain inside and walk above the streets from mall to mall, complex to complex. But they can be soulless and luxury consumer-driven so as with many a city, Hong Kong is best when getting off the beaten path in neighborhoods, from the exhausting, steep streets of Sheung Wan to the fabric malls of Sham Sui Po, the bustling Kowloon destination of Tsim Sha Tsui to the hipster-meets-old school Chinese streets of Wan Chai (Frommer’s helpful neighborhood breakdown here).
Eating in HK is one of its great pleasures: certainly for the best dim sum in the world at what is essentially the home of dim sum (think Michelin-starred level) but also for a strong showing of international restaurants sometimes strongest in unexpected areas of Japanese or Spanish food. The Hong Kong cocktail scene holds a number of noteworthy gems, which I explore it in detail here.
Given the unmistakable British influence everywhere from over a century under British rule, afternoon tea is an important HK ritual just as milk tea and toast is a distinctly HK respite, becoming one of my favorite traditions learned on this trip (see more under Tsui Wah below. Alternately, high tea at the gorgeous Langham Hotel (just remodeled before my fall 2014 visit — a fantastic, elegant place to stay, with the high tea launched September 30, 2014) is a memorable HK activity, with French and Germanic-influenced pastries from Austrian executive pastry chef, Reinhard Lackner, stunning teas and elegant Wedgwood china designed exclusively for the Langham Hong Kong, all set to live music from the lobby’s grand piano. Slip around the fireplace from the tea room to the Artesian at the Langham for a cocktail (more on that here).
With far too many taste highlights, here are my top 10 meals Hong Kong meals — from Michelin-starred fine dining to hole-in-the-walls.
As a 2 Michelin-starred restaurant and # 38 on San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, Amber — in the Landmark Mandarin Oriental — deserves its accolades as a truly “whole package” experience, from the striking-yet-soothing dining room to the strong, international wine list. Service is gracious and accommodating without feeling fussy and chef Richard Ekkebus’ artful dishes wow first in presentation, then in taste.
Signature bites like foie gras lollipops encased in raspberry, marked by a beetroot chip and gingerbread are worth the hype. In fact, initial bites are some of the highlights, like a furry chestnut filled topped with chestnut paste fritters marked by Swiss chard and apple puree. Whimsy and imagination play with honed technique in dishes like Hokkaido sea urchin with lobster jello, cauliflower, caviar and crispy seaweed waffles.
With this chef and crew still at the helm, it’s a place I’d love to return to again next time I’m in HK.
The endless raves and awards (including Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best) for Yardbird, a Japanese izakaya in the hip neighborhood of Sheung Wan seem overhyped at first… until you head down into the smoky basement next to the tiny kitchen, meet welcoming Canadian chef Matt Abergel and his sister Tara Babins and try your first bites.
Be prepared to fall in love. My 2 weeks in Japan (highlights here) followed this Hong Kong trip and despite the superlative experience that is Japan, Yardbird still tops any yakitori meal I’ve had around the globe, including Japan.
While the likes of chicken hearts, gizzards, liver and tsukune (chicken meatballs) are all superb, its off-the-beaten-path house favorites like sweet corn tempura balls or downright killer KFC (Korean fried cauliflower in chili and garlic) that linger in my memory, eliciting cravings long after I returned to the States.
What sent the experience over the top was a drink menu from bar manager Elliot Faber (more on that here) that offers an array of Japanese whiskies we cannot get in the US (including newer Chichibu offerings), sakes, Japanese craft beers, awamori (a rice spirit from Okinawa) and even Suntory Highballs, Japan’s ubiquitous whisky and soda, in a can designed especially for Yardbird.
Casual, festive and cramped with a challenging no reservations format, Yardbird is one of those meals worth the effort to experience, one of the more delightful meals in the world. How I wish it was in my city (they recently did a one night only pop-up at Rintaro, which I had a reservation for but due to a family emergency had to give up).
3. Ham & Sherry
Ham & Sherry (from the owners of Aberdeen Street Social and 22 Ships) is another standout meal in all my Hong Kong experiences. The tiny, blue and white tile-walled space sports a center kitchen flanked by a wrap-around bar and a spare few tables. It’s amazing what head chef Max Kellman turn out of this miniscule space.
Though Ham & Sherry is certainly about tapas and sherry, there are dishes coming out of the kitchen well beyond your basic tapas, like an excellent dish of fried potatoes, grapes and eggs (pictured above) or stellar chili garlic shrimp. Wine offerings are strong and the sherry pours superb. Lingering over lunch or an early dinner with an array of sherries and Kellman’s flavor-packed dishes is a fantastic respite in the Wan Chai district.
4. Aberdeen Street Social
Aberdeen Street Social had only been open a little over 3 months when I dined there last October, set in a two floor building with bar, casual dining room and outdoor patio downstairs and a bustling but more refined upstairs dining room. Produce driven cocktails (more about those here) shine, while Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton’s (of 22 Ships & Ham & Sherry – above) food is inventive, visionary and often delicious.
Downstairs offer a shorter menu while upstairs you can dine on tasting menus or a la carte with joys like raw Hokkaido scallops dotted with dashi jelly, green apple, shiso, avocado and wasabi purée, or a delightful take on black pudding (blood sausage) wrapped in a pastry with pig’s trotter, ham hock and notes of apple and Madeira.
Dessert is no throwaway with the likes of milk in varying textures marked by flavors of blueberry lapsang souchong tea, mascarpone and maple whisky. It’s a restaurant both hip and refined, welcoming for a drink as it is for a full meal.
5. Pierre in the Mandarin Oriental
Upstairs in the flagship Mandarin Oriental — one of the best hotel stays of my life with unreal, world class service and striking bay views from the rooms — Pierre is a 2 Michelin-starred restaurant with a view.
Watching flashy graphics from buildings across the Bay makes for enticing dinner theater in a meal where the French-centric (and Champagne-rich) wine list is a highlight. The elements of the meal wove together with an array of international flavors, from squid ink gnocchi and cod pancakes to langoustine five ways, including as tartare or grilled tail over green lentils. French influence invigorates dishes like blue lobster from Brittany, France, with lobster bisque and a lobster claw in chive oil.
6. Fook Lam Moon
Though cities like Vancouver and SF are dense with dim sum options — and hole-in-the-wall dim sum is an important part of an edible HK journey — nothing topped Fook Lam Moon, an institution sine 1972. It’s hard to know why a Michelin-starred dim sum restaurant surpasses dim sum you’ve had before until you’ve dined here.
Raved about by critics and locals (who told me this was decidedly less touristy and a locals’ favorite for upscale HK dim sum), I narrowed down to this destination for my upscale dim sum experience.
The austere dining room is old school elegance and the staff operate as one seamless team bringing out steamed baskets of the juiciest siu mai (pork dumplings with crab roe) you’ve ever tasted. Deep fried shrimp wontons are junk food in most US dim sum houses and something I’d normally avoid. But one bite of the flaky fried wontons here and I sighed, knowing I likely wouldn’t taste such perfection until I was back here again.
7. Mak’s Noodle
Humble, divey but charming, the original Wellingston Street location of Mak’s Noodle (there are 5 total HK locations) is a Hong Kong institution since the 1960s for wonton noodles.
Plump dumplings are cradled in chewy egg noodles and steaming hot broth in a petite bowl. It’s a heartwarming little spot some of my HK friends fondly recall growing up dining at.
Hot tea and wonton noodles don’t last long but to stop in at the tiny space feels like a proper Hong Kong introduction.
8. Tsui Wah
Fluorescent lighting and abrupt, rushed service only solidify the fact that Tsui Wah feels like the Hong Kong chain that it is. Local friends took me here — again, a spot they grew up in where a meal cost no more than a few dollars.
We filled up on a mountain of rice fluffy with egg white and shrimp – and most importantly, that sacred HK ritual of milk tea (black tea and evaporated or condensed milk – can be iced or hot) with toast doused in condensed milk. So buttery, simple and good, I immediately fell in love with the tradition here and couldn’t get enough of it from here on out (I even bought Ritz milk tea crackers).
Though I came to Duddell’s primarily for cocktails on the expansive, outdoor patio upstairs — lined with tropical plants and vintage garden furniture — I did try a few small plates from the downstairs, 2 Michelin-starred restaurant.
Winningly showing off Cantonese flavors with modern flair, they sine with modernized dim sum and platters of scrambled egg white with black truffle and fresh crab. There is a whole section of abalone dishes alone.
10. Rainbow on Lamma Island
Local friends took us to their favorite island hangout, low-key Lamma Island, where we dined on a huge waterfront patio dotted with bright plastic chairs and tables, where cheap Asian beers flowed around heaping platters of seafood drawn straight from the waters in front of us.
After docking from a humble local’s ferry, we dined at Rainbow, one of many restaurants lining the village’s one street. We picked our fish, clams, squid and razor clams straight out of tanks, then dined on many garlic-heavy interpretations, perfect for sharing as a group. As we left Rainbow to catch the restaurant’s free (for a good half hour, choppy and wild!) boat ride back to Central, we passed a stand where we grabbed delicious peanut coconut and green bean mocha for dessert.