Australian Magazine, Edition 1

SAT 23 JAN 2010, Page 026

Inside Story

By: Necia Wilden

Necia Wilden takes a private tour of Hong Kong 's best eating spots

GILBERT LAU SPINS THE LAZY SUSAN UNTIL the platter of roast goose stops in front of him. Then, with chopsticks, he lifts the bird's cleaved, burnished head and carefully transports the gift to my plate. "Eat the brain first," he urges. "It's the best part."

When in Hong Kong , eat as the Cantonese do, even if it sometimes ends in a gag reflex. No, not after the goose brain - an exercise in mindful eating, if you'll forgive me - but the fish stomach and the intestine omelette I struggled to swallow at another restaurant. Thank God for Gilbert and his wife Alice, who ate all the weird bits with gusto as they relived the food of their childhoods in China . When in Hong Kong , it helps to have a Cantonese-eating guide. Ours is one of Australia 's most celebrated restaurateurs, formerly of Melbourne 's Flower Drum, now of the more modest but equally overbooked Lau's Family Kitchen. The 67-year-old Lau, who lived in Hong Kong from 1949-1957 before migrating to Australia, travels back three times a year to visit friends and family, shop and eat.

Having your own almost-local guide when eating out in Hong Kong means you can happily ignore the Michelin one which, judging by a few entries, may well be an elaborate joke played on gweilo to keep them out of the best restaurants.

"We will go in the spirit of the moment," said Lau when I quizzed him about the itinerary.

So that was how the nine of us on this private tour ended up faithfully following our leader, who looked like a smiling monk in a beige sunhat, to wherever his network of friends doubling as restaurant consultants said we would be mad to miss.

Hong Kong's Food and Wine Year ends in March. Now, you might think this is like announcing a beer year in Germany or a tulip year in Holland , but in truth Hong Kong has good reason to crow. Its abolition of the duty on imported wines in 2008 has transformed it into the wine capital of South-East Asia ; wine prices in many restaurants have plummeted, making much dining out very cheap.

We stay at The Langham in Kowloon , not only because it's a nice hotel but also for its proximity to international dumpling chain Din Tai Fung (the Hong Kong outlet is better than Sydney 's), the Choi Wan Hin Seafood Restaurant for yum cha free of the tourist hordes, and Shanghainese eatery Wu Kong. And because it's walking distance, too, to The Peninsula for Lau's annual afternoon tea visit - and if you stay there as often as he does you can jump the inevitable queue (if not, it pays to avoid weekends).

Is it all just about food? Of course not; Hong Kong is many-splendoured. There are butterflies at the Peak, phalaenopsis orchids in the hotel lobbies, young fashionistas in shorts and long boots and the white jungle of highrises that messes with your head. But mostly, Hong Kong is food: the restaurants we visited produced a string of best-evers. Best suckling pig (Sun Dao Kee); best roast chicken (Yin Yang); best roast goose (Nang Kee); best fried rice (Tai Woo).

Day one: Lunch at Mak's Noodle, Central When Hong Kong locals have been away, says Lau, this is often the first place they come to after getting off the plane. These days, the bustling noodle bar boasts reviews by gonzo American food writer Anthony Bourdain under glass on the tabletops, but that doesn't detract from the simple, clean and honest Cantonese food, much of it based on noodles in intensely flavoured broth.

Day two: Lunch at Three Sisters, Panyu, Canton This is a detour from our Hong Kong itinerary, but our guide insists it's worth it. Getting there requires a two-hour ferry ride then an hour's bumpy ride in a bus through the dusty streets of downtown Panyu. "Nobody works this hard for lunch except us," says Lau cheerfully as we finally pull up at a roadside tin shed with a dodgy roof.

Surely this isn't it? Lau had promised us the Tuscany of China. This seems a little ambitious, notwithstanding the nearby tourist drawcard of a Chinese garden.

Inside the cafe, a roomful of clattering chopsticks goes silent as everyone stops eating to stare at the gweilo. We are led upstairs to a large, empty, undecorated dining room. The ceiling fans whir. One of the eponymous sisters greets Lau like an old friend. And then the food arrives.

There are 22 courses, among them buffalo milk soup; three-cup chicken; braised lotus root; cubes of fried cream (delicious); bitter melon omelette; silky black chicken; Chinese asparagus (which tastes more like leek than asparagus - Lau says he hasn't eaten one for 40 years); fish dumpling soup; stir-fried goji leaves and pork fat fritters. And finally, a dessert called doubleskin milk, an off-putting name for a heavenly buffalo milk custard infused with ginger. It is simple farmers' food, the essence of regional Cantonese cooking, and the bill comes to about $9 a head, including the bus fare. As we are leaving, one of the staff , a lad of about 16, rushes from the other side of the room to help my 80-year-old father down the stairs.

Day three: Dinner at Sun Dao Kee, Jordan, Kowloon A typical Lau haunt, Sun Dao Kee has no English signage and no English business card and is nothing much to look at. Only the sight of a worker dangling some part of a pig over open flames near the entrance gives a clue to what lies within. Tonight, they have already served 30 suckling pigs roasted to order, and it is only 8pm.

Oh, the crackling. As well, we eat classic roast pigeon; long curly ribbons of razor clams steamed with black beans; yellow-skin chicken, a Hong Kong specialty; lotus root cake; and whole steamed coral trout. "Eat it straight away please," Lau instructs us when the fish lands.

"You have five minutes to enjoy the best fish; after that it starts to deteriorate." Yes boss.

Day four: Dinner at Yin Yang, Wan Chai You've heard of the wow moment, now try an unbroken string of them over four hours. Margaret Xu is a freakishly gifted cook who seems to revel in doing things the hard way: growing her own food, hand-grinding organic soybeans for tofu, designing her own clay oven and producing eight different handmade sauces to go with a single dish. It almost doesn't seem fair that she has an artist's eye for contemporary presentation as well. The cooking, a fusion of the food of various Hong Kong ethnic groups, stays true to the Cantonese spirit, with flavours as persistent as childhood memory. Yellow Earth chicken is served with its carcass alongside; baby lobsters wave their tentacles in final surrender as a hot chrysanthemum sauce is poured over them; "abalone in satin" tastes as poetic as it sounds. One of the best meals of my life.

Day five: Dinner at Tai Woo, Causeway Bay There's nothing undiscovered about Tai Woo, which is in the Michelin guide and has won many awards. Lau tells us the chef has been here 25 years, to the chagrin of all the five-star hotels who've tried to pinch him during that time. The creative, accomplished food backs up the story.

We eat steamed crunchy pork off an edible spoon made of deep-fried rice paper; alongside, a mini bamboo basket holds tender pork belly braised with lemongrass. Equally good are baked prawns with fried-rice vermicelli, and slices of juicy stewed beef.

Day six: Dinner at Nang Kee, New Territories If it's classic Cantonese roast goose you crave, you can join the crowds at the legendary Yung Kee in Central, or you can go off the beaten track to the cheaper, outer-suburban BYO eatery Nang Kee.

It's worth it, not so much for the decor - half of the restaurant is a marquee tent, more or less but for the boundless high spirits of owner David Lau and, of course, for that goose. Leave room for the whole sand mullet, served cold Chiu Chow-style, and for the mountain-water tofu stuffed with fish ball.

Back at The Langham for our last night, we find in our room a gift from the hotel of a slab of couverture chocolate embroidered with the words "We'll miss you". Took the words right out of my mouth. Thank you, Gilbert.

For Necia Wilden's Shanghai reviews, see

Necia Wilden
Co-editor Food + Wine
The Weekend Australian Magazine
Ph: (03) 9292 2847
Editorial Department
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