Hong Kong delivers above and beyond

JULIETTA JAMESON
Last updated 05:00 14/10/2013

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"Oh. My. God." This is all I can mumble. I've tasted perfection and lost the ability to speak coherently.

This pork bun I'm eating, it surely must be the world's best: baked, not steamed, delicately crispy on the outside, the pastry light and fluffy and not at all doughy, a balance of sweet and salty, inside a plentiful filling of tender marinated pork and piquant, sticky sauce.

Oh. My. God. Every time I come to Hong Kong I'm subject to a sensory smack-down. Its wonders - the dazzling sights, startling smells, cacophonous sounds and tantalising tactility of its retail madness - always leave me exhausted but in the best possible way.

It's a holiday destination that never leaves me wanting. And now taste has come to that party.

It's not like I've not had good food in Hong Kong before but on this trip we've come specifically to explore its culinary wonders and ... Oh. My. God. What wonders they are.

Visitors can thank the endemic Hong Kongers' love of food for this sublimeness. They tend to live in small spaces and work long hours. So meal times are exercises in multi-tasking: socialising, relaxing, nourishment of the body and soul.

It's estimated there is one restaurant or cafe for every 600 people, or around 12,000 eateries in this area of 1100 square kilometres housing seven million people. Compare that to 33,000 eateries in Australia's 7.7 million square kilometres.

The natural law of competition means Hong Kong delivers above and beyond in quality as much as it does in quantity. And given the high incomes of many and by sheer law of averages, it's to be expected that Hong Kong would have the 50 Michelin-starred establishments it has among all those.

Even so, it seems incredible that a humble dim sum maker could get enough international cut-through to be among them.

But when Mak Kwai Pui had his one and only restaurant, a 15-seater affair, the queues were hours long. Word got around.

He earned a Michelin star in the 2010 Hong Kong and Macau Michelin guide.

Now he's got a few branches of his restaurant throughout Hong Kong. Tim Ho Wan is named "Timmy's" by the locals and is, to most, the cheapest Michelin-starred meal they'll find anywhere.

Timmy's is proof you don't need to be fancy to be iconic in a place where every meal, even a snack, is taken seriously. Exhibit B is equally iconic - Lee Keung Kee North Point Egg Waffles, a little hole in the wall with photos of celebrity customers all over its exterior. At $HK15 apiece ( $2) these moreish treats are a local favourite for morning or afternoon tea or for a breakfast or supper on the run. The waffles may be ubiquitous across Hong Kong but people travel for North Point's version. Likewise Tai Cheong's egg tarts. The Soho bakery has been operating for more than 60 years and still has queues out the door for their succulent sweets hot out of the oven.

Meanwhile, the more fashionable Hong Kongers satisfy a hard-earned shopping hunger at St Betty in the upmarket IFC Mall in Central (one of many Hong Kong restaurants within these giant indoor cities within a city).

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If egg waffles and tarts are old-school iconic Hong Kong, then the likes of St Betty are the new. Though the restaurant is not Michelin-starred itself, St Betty's rock-star chef, Australian Shane Osborn, earned two Michelin stars in London's chichi Pied a Terre. Now he heads a more casual eatery, set up by Alan Yau, the man behind the Wagamama chain.

After the pressure of cooking in high-end London, Osborn and his young family travelled for a year before landing in Hong Kong. His fresh point of view shows in his menu, which is all about beautiful ingredients treated with simple sophistication.

It's very European but with more than a nod to its regional context - and the locals love it.

Dishes range from the simple - a bruschetta with 36-month-aged Iberico ham - to the intricate - raw Hokkaido scallops and Jerusalem artichokes marinated in truffle and lemon nage.

But in all, those ingredients sing. Osborn's training may be French but his heart remains Australian - he sources his truffles from Tasmania and to accompany our dessert, from an exemplary wine list featuring the world's great producers, he picks a pink moscato by Innocent Bystander in the Yarra Valley.

The fact Hong Kong attracts Osborn's calibre of chef keeps it on the world culinary stage and the local clientele are thanking their lucky stars. At nearby Amber, in the Landmark Mandarin Oriental hotel, not only is the chef a two-Michelin-star man, but the restaurant is No. 36 on the San Pellegrino The World's 50 Best Restaurants list, whose reviewer describes it as "classical French with subtle Hong Kong influences".

Amber's Weekend Wine Lunch, a six-course degustation that matches chef Richard Ekkebus's cuisine with exquisite wines, is a hit with locals, made more so by the fact the imbibing is under the supervision of the charismatic John Chan, Hong Kong's only born-and-bred sommelier.

Wine is an equal partner in this meal: the selection is nothing short of jaw-dropping if you know wine and drool-worthy if you just like drinking it. Amber is privy to exclusive vintages and boutique drops you won't find anywhere else in its 1100-wine list.

The signature dish is Hokkaido sea urchin in lobster jelly with cauliflower, caviar and crispy seaweed waffles. It's served in a little bowl that looks exactly like a sea urchin shell accompanied by a mother of pearl spoon and garnished with edible gold leaf.

The Landmark's sister property, the Mandarin Oriental, is home to Pierre, the Hong Kong home of celebrity French chef Pierre Gagnaire. The kitchen is helmed by Gagnaire protege Jean Denis Le Bras, who carries out his adventurous mentor's vision with aplomb. Everything is exceptional.

The lamb dish isn't just lamb: it's a pan-seared saddle of lamb with tamarind juice and a socca pancake alongside a rack of lamb with stuffed fresh grapes, alongside a dipping bowl of ewe's milk yoghurt, Roquefort and dried apricot. It's amazing.

Between a one-dollar pork bun and a $150 lamb masterpiece, there is, of course, lots of middle ground in Hong Kong. And these are perhaps the places the locals love the most.

Hong Kong Maxim's Group operates plenty of them, with more than 760 outlets in Hong Kong and China across its various brands, according to the nearly 60-year-old hospitality group's website.

Its no-MSG Cantonese House of Jasmine restaurants are frequented by mainland Chinese tourists as much as locals.

They're the kinds of places where you'll get shared plates and pots of tea on the lazy susan in the middle of the table - and it's where one of our group says she tastes her favourite dish of the trip: a dessert of glutinous rice balls stuffed with black sesame floating in an almond milk custard.

I still can't get past that pork bun but that's the beauty of the food scene in Hong Kong - there's something for everyone.

The Hong Kong Wine and Dine Festival is on from October 31 to November 3.

The writer was a guest of the Hong Kong Tourism Board, Mandarin Oriental and Qantas.

GETTING THERE Latest deals to Asia can be found here. The Qantas lounge at Hong Kong Airport is being relocated and upgraded and is expected to open early next year.

STAYING THERE The Mandarin Oriental is in Central, just opposite the Star Ferry terminal for Kowloon and within walking distance of many of Hong Kong's finest restaurants and shopping. 5 Connaught Road, Central; see mandarinoriental.com.

DINING THERE

Tim Ho Wan, 9-11 Fuk Wing Street, Sham Shui Po and several central locations.

Lee Keung Kee, 492 King's Road, North Point.

St Betty, Shop 2075, Podium Level Two, IFC Mall, 8 Finance Street, Central.

MORE INFORMATION discoverhongkong.com.

- FFX Aus

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