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OA Blog/Destination Dining

Dining in Hong Kong & Shanghai & Settling the Controversy Between Chinese & Japanese Cuisine Once For all

After spending 8 nights in Tokyo, which I took full advantage of by drowning myself in sushi, while also having time to eat a few other specialties the city is known for, I picked myself up and flew to Hong Kong. I was actually coming back to Tokyo to meet Mrs. P later in the same week, but my friends had gone back to the states and I wasn’t looking forward to spending the time by myself. So come Sunday afternoon, I jumped on a Cathay Pacific for the 3 1/2 hour flight Hong Kong where the magical trio of Margaret Lam, Cathy Ho and Katie Keiko Tam would serve as dining companions.

I decided to stay at the Peninsula, and I took advantage of their famous green Rolls Royce airport pickup service which includes having a representative of the hotel meeting you when you deplane and helping you navigate through immigration in an expedited way. A cool experience if a bit pricey, but hey you only live once. But spending money on these types of luxuries does have its advantages: The flight arrived at 8:45 and I made it to the hotel, checked in, went to the room to get myself organized, and was on my way to dinner at 9:45. Fortunately I had a different expediter waiting to take me for dinner in the form of one Margaret Lam, who was conveniently waiting in a taxi in the hotel’s driveway.

Though I knew her from online, this was the first time I had met Margaret in person. If you have never met her, I think the best way to describe her is as follows. If the Guiness Book of Records had a category that measured how much someone ate compared to how much they weighed, I am sure Margaret would hold the record for the lowest weight. Where she puts all of the food she eats I have no idea. But it is not unusual to arrive at a restaurant where she announces, “I hope you don’t mind but I took the liberty of calling the restaurant in advance and ordering...." whereby she begins to recite a litany of dishes that could make your head spin. Somewhat of a celebrity on Instagram , when I was at Bo Innovation, I met a couple from San Francisco and I started telling them about the spicy crab dinner I had the night before. But before I had the chance to finish they cut me off in the middle as they follow her feed and they already knew all about the dinner.

So I get into the taxi and after the requisite hellos and nice to meet yous, Margaret launches into a dissertation on Hong Kong style spicy crabs and how there is a more famous place than the one we were going to which Anthony Bourdain went to but we weren’t going there because this place was better and blah, blah blah. We arrived ten minutes later and to be honest, we might have been at one of the grungy restaurants in New York or San Francisco Chinatown like Wo Hop or Yuet Lee. But sometimes looks can be were deceiving as the food easily surpassed anything you can find in the U.S. We tore through some delicious clams in black bean sauce, razor clams topped with crispy garlic and chopped scallion, the signature spicy crabs which were dry-sauteed and showered with toasted garlic, salt & pepper mantis shrimp which was so sweet, meaty and exceptional, that it might be worth flying back to Hong Kong just to eat it again, and a double-boiled duck soup. Let me tell you when it comes to eating meals in grungy Chinese restaurants, it does not get any better than this. The last time I had a Chinatown-style meal that I enjoyed this much dates back to the days of Lin’s Garden.

The next day I was meeting Cathy for lunch at Tin Lung Heen. But it was not before having a bit of an adventure. I was switching from the Peninsula to the Lanmark Mandarin Oriental in Central (the heart of downtown Hong Kong) and a cab driver tried to rip me off by telling me that the tunnel was bumper to bumper traffic and it would be quicker to take the longer way around. Well it turned into a 45 minute nightmare whereby after I asked him to go back to Kowloon because that is where I was supposed to meet Cathy. But he refused and he took me to the Landmark where all hell broke looks after I refused to pay him. Fortunately the bellman at the hotel intervened and after about a 10 minute stand off he took 1/2 of the fare on the meter. And sure enough, when I went back to Kowloon to meet Cathy, the driver took the tunnel and there was hardly a car going in either direction.

Tin Lung Heen is on the 102nd floor of a giant tower. It is part of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel (whose lobby is on the 103rd floor) and as you can imagine, the view is pretty spectacular. Well the food ain’t half bad either. Over the years, a number of different people have extolled the virtues of high end Chinese dining, claiming it can equal the quest for excellence typically found in Japanese cuisine (more about that later.) Tin Lung Heen was my first example of that style of dining and I will say that to some extent, it exceeded my expectations Highights were roast Iberico pork and a terrific stuffed crab claw.

After lunch I decided to walk around Central, which was not that easy to do in 80+ weather and overwhelming humidity. If you have never been to Hong Kong, the comment that suits it best was offered by the comedien Dave Chapelle, who described it as being, “like Canal Street but it goes on forever" (Canal Street is the heart of NYC Chinatown.) The one major difference is that the luxury shopping in Hong Kong is out of control. Between the entrance to my hotel and the corner, the luxury watches in the shop windows from brands like Patek Phillipe, Vacherin-Constantin, Rolex etc. easily could have added up to a million dollars. And the crazy luxury shopping is not limited to watches and jewelry. The Tod’s billboard listed five different locations in Hong Kong, and one in Kowloon. That’s nuts. Do Chinese people buy more shoes on a per capita basis than Westerners do? Why on earth would Tod’s need 6 shops in a small place like Hong Kong?

Dinner was with Cathy at Bo Innovation which is sort of a mix between the Fat Duck and Minibar. Alvin Leung (who I have to admit is one cool dude in person), takes classic Hong Kong-style dishes and ingredients and molecularizes them in ways that only the inventor of the Pacojet could imagine. We sat at the Chef’s Counter and each dish come with a prologue that explains the tradition behind eating the dish or an explanation of the unusual ingredient in the dish (unusual for Westerners) but which the people of Hong Kong use on a daily basis. I have to say that I normally like that style of dining. But contemporary cuisine has gone so hyper-natural that Bo seemed a bit dated to me. Some of the dishes were really good, but others were too focused on the concept and not enough on the ingredients. Overall a fun experience and I would give it another whirl, but it would not be without reservations. Though it wasn’t on the the evening’s menu, I inquired about their signature dessert, “Sex on the Beach" and they promptly whipped up three servings for the six of us who were dining at the Chef’s Counter

I left the next day’s lunch free so I could try and find two of my favorite things to eat: Chinese style roast pork and won ton noodle soup. I had read that Alvin Leung’s go to place for noodle soup was a small restaurant called Maks, which just so happened to be near my hotel in Central. So I wandered over around lunch time and ordered a bowl (no photo.) Not bad, but not anywhere as good as say Big Wong in NYC Chinatown. Then I got into a cab to go to a place called Joy Hing, which a number of sources claimed had the best roast pork in Hong Kong. Well it was poor. Not even half as good as the most basic Chinatown barbecue restaurant. Later that evening, when I was telling Margaret about my lunch, she lamented that the quality of the roast pork had gone down when the British left and the rents started going up.

Dinner was at Fook Lam Moon with Margaret, Cathy and Katie who happens to be one of my co-stars in the Foodies film being released this fall. It is difficult to draw a comparison but, the role Fook Lam Moon plays in local society, bit it is sort of a throwback to the grand regional restaurants that were popular in Europe in the second half of the 20th century. The focus is on fresh, local ingredients that are cooked in a simple way. When we wanted to order some salt and pepper shrimp, the waiter warned us that the top-quality shrimp they would normally serve were already sold out and all they had left was some lesser species and were we sure we wanted them blah, blah, blah. Wel of course we wanted them silly. Along with the fresh food, they have a really good wine list and if you are in the mood to blow large wads of cash, you can take a sip of Mouton or La Tache, or indulge in a bottle of Krug Rose like we did, in between picking bits of crab out of the shell.

It was at Fook Lam Moon that Margaret really showed her stuff. She was in charge of booking the table, but it wasn’t until we sat down and popped the cork on our bottles of Champagne that she uttered those famous words, “I hope you don’t mind but I took the liberty of ordering ..." whereby the waiter arrived with an entire suckling pig that she had pre-ordered for the table which was followed by some type of big mouth bass and a variety of other dishes. Anyway the food was delicious, the company was great and I can finally check off a place that I have been dying to go there for years. And if I lived in Hong Kong, like many of the other natives of the city who have celebrated all sorts of special occasions with a family meal at the restaurant, it would be my go to restaurant if I was in the mood for an evening of bourgeois dining.

Shanghai was nothing like I expected it to be. Thinking about it in retrospect, the image I had of Shanghai was in black and white rather than color. I am not sure why I thought of it that way - maybe I had seen too many black and white photos of the Bund taken in the 1930’s. But I was not prepared for the way it looked in any way. Especially for the way it looks in Pudong, which is where we stayed, and which seems to have an endless supply of skyscrapers including three 100 story skyscraper lined up in a row. But what really shocked me about Shanghai is how mellow it is, and how mellow the people are. The type of pandemonium you would find at a green grocer in Manhattan’s Chinatown where people are pushing you out of the way in order to snatch a particular fruit or vegetable that they have singled out appeared to be absent from what I saw. And the people were nice to a fault.

Dinner was at what is fondly know as the old Jesse. That’s because they have opened a number of branches around Shanghai but it is the original location is the one that stays on the foodie radar screen. A small restaurant on the second floor of a stand alone building, it couldn’t have had more than six or seven tables. There are numerous reviews of the restaurant on the Internet so we came armed with a list of dishes that we wanted to order. But in the end it didn’t really matter as our young, smiling waiter who although he didn’t speak any English, sat across the table from us and opened the menu so that it faced us, and began pointing to a series of dishes he recommended we should order. Particularly good was a plate of shredded bean curd skin with mushrooms, a tomato and crab soup and a nice sized pile of sweet red dates that were stuffed with sticky rice.

The next we arranged for a guide to take us on a tour of the city the next day. Lunch was included in the price and I had requested that we go to a soup bun restaurant named Jia Jia. In particular, the all-crab soup buns were significantly better to what you get in the states. In fact I would go as far as saying that the Chinese excel well beyond the US when it comes to any dish that centers on crabs. And just so you know we are on the ball, our guide told us that in seven years of doing that job, we were the very first people to ask to have lunch at what is easily Shanghai’s most famous soup bun restaurant. I want to offer thanks and give a shout out to Felix Hirsch of QLIweb for recommending both Jia Jia & Jesse.

Dinner was at Da Dong, which is the Shanghai branch of the famous Peking Duck restaurant located in Beijing (or Beijing Duck as the locals call it.) And though it was easily a step or two up from the various versions I have had of the dish in the US, unfortunately, the restaurant is located in a luxury shopping mall and the antiseptic ambiance left something to be desired. And then our Shanghai adventure was over and the next morning we got up and traveled to Sorrento, Italy via London, Rome and a very long ride in a van down to Sorrento. All in all it was 22 hours of non-stop travel. More about that next week.

So after 13 days in Japan and 5 days in Hong Kong & Shanghai, I feel I have gained enough experience to offer what I believe are some definitive conclusions regarding the dispute about which is the superior of the two, Chinese or Japanese cuisine, in ways I couldn’t articulate prior to my visit. So hear goes. The gulf between the two - with Japanese being the far more cultivated of the two cuisines - is much wider than I ever imagined. And the reason for this is simple. The Japanese are about as obsessive compulsive a society as you will ever find. And in order to enjoy life to the fullest, they have created gradations of quality to their culinary pursuits that border on the maniacal.

So as delicious as Chinese cooking can be, it lacks the type of nuance, and collateral codification system intended to differentiate levels of quality that you regularly come upon when dining in Japan. Take the system the Japanese have adopted for grading their beef which is according to the Prefecture (state) the cattle was raised in, and the ratio of fat to meat on scale from A1-A5. Off the top of my head. in order to find a system as complex as the one the Japanese have adopted for beef, one would have to look at the way the French have codified the wines of Bordeaux or Burgundy, which is by vineyard, growth (class), and which site from within a vineyard the grapes come.

Having said all of that, I can honestly say that both styles of cooking delivered enjoyable meals. But while I would be happy to return to both Hong Kong and Shanghai in order to learn more about the cuisine and enjoy the restaurants that serve it, I can honestly say that the restaurant in those places are not calling to me the way the restaurants in Tokyo are.