A five-star tour of some no-frills Kowloon eateries whets the appetite for what could be the best Cantonese dinner in Hong Kong.
In the center of the wooden workbench sits a metal bowl of sweet and fragrant char siu pork topped with pine nuts. To one side, balls of dough are being swiftly flattened using a small rolling pin. The meat mix is gently eased onto the surface of the dough with a wooden spatula, before nimble fingers fold the edges and place the buns on a baking trayâ€”120 in total for the dayâ€™s diners.
Itâ€™s a rare privilege to access any Cantonese restaurant kitchen, and even more so to watch dim sum being made in the only one in the world to boast three Michelin stars. Lung King Heen at Hong Kongâ€™s Four Seasons Hotel has held this unique distinction since 2009, under the watchful command of its affable head chef, Chan Yan Tak.
Back in his kitchen, an enormous bamboo steamer hisses and bellows white clouds like a dragon as though to affirm the restaurantâ€™s name, which means â€śview of the dragon.â€ť Inside individual steamers, it takes one to two minutes for vegetarian dim sum to cook, three for sheets of rice paper rolls, and five for the pork-filled xiao long bao. Timing is critical as nothing can leave the kitchen even so much as seconds late, lest texture and mouthfeel is compromised. Elsewhere, whole chickens marinated in salt are being hung to air dry; this ensures the skin gets tougher before frying, delivering perfect crispiness as a result. Below them the kitchen godâ€™s shrine looks out for the safety and success of the 25 staff chopping and steaming, working the searing heat of woks, or plucking red snapper from pristine tanks.
Across its portfolio of properties the Four Seasons group offers a range of what it calls â€śextraordinary experiences,â€ť allowing guests to enjoy unique and bespoke adventures. You can dine onstage at the Hungarian State Opera House in Budapest, join a seaplane surfing safari in the Maldives, or stargaze with an astronomer in Costa Rica. In Hong Kong, cuisine is the star of an experience dubbed â€śIn the Footsteps of a Dragon,â€ť an exploration of the cityâ€™s culinary landscape that starts with this kitchen tour of Lung King Heen, visits the backstreets of Kowloon (where Tak was born), and finishes with a wine-paired dinner. Participation is limited to in-house guests and tours are led by a â€ścultural ambassadorâ€ť from the hotel who takes care of all the arrangements and bills and explains the ingredients, preparation, and backstories of each venue and dish.
We leave Lung King Heen behind (temporarily at leastâ€”weâ€™ll be back for dinner) and begin the next stage of our program, eating in a selectionof chef Takâ€™s favorite spots. Some are legendary, some unusual, but all are utterly fascinating windows into one of the worldâ€™s greatest food destinations.
This being the Four Seasons, things are naturally done in style, so a Mercedes limousine pulls up to whisk us under Victoria Harbour to Kowloon. Nathan Congee and Noodle is the first stop. As with most of the places on the dayâ€™s itinerary, the decor here has changed little if at all since it first opened 60 years ago. The secret to the eateryâ€™s success is the base of its sampan congee, so called because it would have originally been prepared with the dayâ€™s catch by people living on sampan boats. At Nathan the cooks wake up in the middle of the night to make theirs, using three types of fish, pork skin, and definitely no MSG. Itâ€™s good stuff, and we use yauhjagwai dough sticks to soak it up. More surprising and unusual is a serving of fish skin, which is not fried but simply boiled and served with soy sauce and scallions.
Next we walk across busy Nathan Road to the Australian Dairy Company, which celebrates the cityâ€™s unique crossover of British and Chinese cuisine. The notoriously surly staff are surprisingly all smiles once we take our seats at a round Formica table. Thick toast with creamy scrambled egg, double-boiled milk custard pudding, kaya toast, and Cantonese-style milk tea (sweetened with condensed milk) gives us a taste of some of the most iconic items on the menu. The room buzzes with energy and noise from the calling out of orders, the banging of pots, and the hum of conversation and people enjoying other dishes such as macaroni soup with Spam.
Infinitely quieter is our next stop, Mido CafĂ©, but not before weâ€™ve walked through Temple Street Market and sipped a chrysanthemum herbal brew at a tea stall formerly owned by a man known as the â€śOne-eyed Doctor.â€ť (You donâ€™t need me to tell you how he got his name.) Overlooking Tin Hau Temple and its park, Mido is an absolute gem that dates back to the 1950s. But you donâ€™t come here for the food. You come for the old-timey atmosphere and the throwback to a gentler, slower age. Not to mention some really odd drinks, three of which, in the spirit of discovery, I try. Hot Coke with ginger and lemon is exactly thatâ€”doubtless good for the throat, but not so much for the teeth. Cream soda with milk is a do-it-yourself affair, pouring both bottles into the glass at once. Itâ€™s inter-esting, to say the least. Finally, thereâ€™s a mug of boiling water with a raw egg in it. Iâ€™m skeptical, but once stirred vigorously with white sugar, itâ€™s surprisingly deliciousâ€”a warm, watery custard.