Dicing with dumpling death
Eating lunch at Lung King Heen in Hong Kong, the world's first Chinese restaurant to receive a coveted three-star rating from the Michelin food guide, I'm faced with a dilemma.
The dumplings here are what you may term "luxury dumplings". No mystery meat mash up of pork and chicken - it's scallop and lobster, pork and crab meat, and steamed duck with chestnut in XO chilli sauce.
And here lies my dilemma. I have an allergy to some nuts, but not all nuts. Walnuts and pistachios are definitely on my banned list, but peanuts, cashews and almonds are all fine. But other nuts are an unknown quantity for me.
One dumpling contains chestnut – something I've never tried and therefore don't know whether I'm allergic to.
So the question is – do I avoid the dish and risk missing out on what will potentially be one of the greatest dumplings I'll ever eat?
I decide I have to risk it, pulling open one of the dumplings and testing a piece of chestnut on my lip (which would normally swell if I'm allergic). No reaction.
That's good enough for me and I greedily shove the rest of the dumpling into my mouth. It's worth the gamble - the chestnut adds a crunchy texture to the delicate duck meat.
Cantonese-inspired Lung King Heen, with its spectacular views over Victoria Harbour, is located in the Four Seasons Hong Kong. The hotel not only hosts the world's first Chinese restaurant to receive three Michelin stars, it's also the only hotel in the world to house not one, but two, three-Michelin star eateries.
With only four restaurants in the city receiving the top rating, having two in the one hotel is quite an achievement.
The other, French-themed Caprice, was where we indulged ourselves the previous night.
"If I die tomorrow, it will be OK now that I've eaten this meal," said one of my dining companions afterwards.
I knew what she meant.
We took on several courses of delicious food, perhaps outdone only by the extraordinary cheeses on offer.
We enjoyed scampi carpaccio, an extraordinary mushroom tart and a piece of sole served with a delicious spinach, oyster and seaweed risotto. This was followed by a duck fillet before we move on to those extraordinary cheeses.
The cheese cellar at Caprice is vast, with a huge range of French varieties of a richness and strength I'd never experienced before. It's hard to pick a highlight, but the Comte du Fort Saint Antoine, aged four years, certainly stands-out. That said, even the Mimolette that doubled as a centrepiece throughout the meal is delicious.
I found myself cutting the cheeses into smaller and smaller pieces before eating them – the flavours are so strong, even a tiny morsel is delicious and reducing the size of each bite lets me savour the cheese that little bit longer.
Certainly a meal at Caprice is not cheap, but this is not a casual bite before heading to the theatre or movies; dinner here is an event in itself. And if your companions don't suffice for entertainment, the enthusiastic staff will, along with their exquisite explanations of each dish as it is delivered.
Having enjoyed two of the best restaurants in the city, we head out the next night for a different kind of Hong Kong dining experience.
The city's culture of "private kitchens", essentially restaurants that cooks would open in their own home or rented space while avoiding the high prices of commercial rents, has taken off.
Visiting a private kitchen may have consequently lost some of its cachet as a clandestine activity, but the experience – much like being a dinner guest in someone's home - remains the same.
We head to a newly opened private kitchen, Grassroots Pantry, run by the charming young chef, Peggy Chan.
The vegetarian menu changes regularly to match what's in season, sticking to local and organic ingredients. Local, organic ingredients in a metropolis like Hong Kong?
Chan says surprisingly enough that sourcing the food is not difficult and that small organic farms are on the rise.
We sit at a large dining table that takes up most of the space in the room, while Chan and her assistants get cooking at a kitchen at the end of the room. With the chef still present in the room as the meals are prepared, it certainly feels as though we are guests, not patrons.
The hand-written menu shows off what's to come: potato and tofu croquettes, beetroot salad, sweet corn chowder with guacamole, mushroom risotto and finally a chocolate and mint trifle.
Even for a meat-lover like me, the vegetarian dishes are delicious. The dessert, served in a small jar and created with the assistance of one of my companions (under Chan's instruction) especially so.
It's a fine way to finish up a trio of exceptional dining experiences in a city where food is such an important part of the culture and those who create it take such pride in their work.
But for all Hong Kong's exceptional skills with food, regardless of the cuisine's cultural originals, there are still a few signs that the city can occasionally miss the mark – at least when it comes to naming the dishes.
While walking near the harbour I see a large billboard promoting a new burger at the Gourmet Burger Union.
Something has clearly been lost in translation, as the new burger has been given a name that happens to be the same as a particularly gross sexual act; clearly not something anyone would want to associate with food.
It leaves me wondering what the folks at Michelin might say.
* The writer travelled to Hong Kong as a guest of Four Seasons Hotels and Cathay Pacific.
Cathay Pacific flies to Hong Kong from Sydney four times daily, Melbourne three times daily, Brisbane 11 times per week and Perth 10 times per week. See http://www.cathaypacific.com/cpa/en_AU/homepage
The Four Season Hong Kong is located in the heart of the city and offers spectacular views over Victoria Harbour. Rooms start from $HK4950 ($NZ760 per night) including tax.
8 Finance Street, Central, Hong Kong
See http://www.fourseasons.com/hongkong/ for more information.
Caprice at the Four Seasons is open daily for lunch and dinner, with final orders at 10.30pm. The menu du chef of four courses costs $HK1080 ($NZ165) or $HK1580 ($NZ241) with paired wines.
Lung King Heen is open daily for lunch and dinner with final orders at 10.30pm. Dim sum dishes costs about $HK50 ($NZ9) each for three pieces.
Grassroots Pantry is open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch, afternoon tea and dinner and for brunch on Sundays. The menu changes regularly, but a five-course set dinners costs about $HK580 ($NZ88)
2-6 Fuk Sau Lane, Sai Ying Pun. www.grassrootspantry.com