Foodies are still made fun of, but food is one of the great pleasures (and mere necessities) of life.
This alone would make it something to consider – and try – in any attempt to learn to be at home in this world, and at home in distinct places.
But then, there’s even more when an “Other” and the different ecology of a different place – as also reflected in the local markets – come into play.
When power dynamics and psychology make something both strange and simple, less-than-fancy… or luxurious…
Street Food, Sensory Overload
Street food, and the whole culture surrounding it, may easily be one of those things that make East Asia so particularly fascinating.
It is diverse, it makes for quite an assault on the senses (sometimes even just from the lights), it is oh-so-different.
Sure, sometimes you’ll catch a bug or outright food poisoning, some of the conditions in which the food is prepared – and some of the foods themselves – may not be so particularly appealing, but that just makes it all the more interesting.
We focus so much on those exotic things and potential problems, though.
If one picks well, however, chances are that street food will be safer than quite a lot of restaurant food; at least you can see for yourself how it is prepared.
Trends and Value
Street food has also become a (foodie / hipster) trend in ‘the West’, as well.
And in East Asia, some street food even gets good enough to warrant a Michelin star…
Still, we tend to focus on the strange, exotic, and potentially dangerous, just to – knowingly or unknowingly – keep in line with the view that sees Chinese food as cheap, lower-class fare.
Japanese food may be easy to find and comparatively cheap nowadays; you may still find some people who declare raw fish nothing but appalling, but Japanese has established itself as great and worthy of high prices.
Saying “French” will not even let you think of mere food, but of cuisine.
Chinese is greasy take-out, sketchy street food, Cantonese will eat anything.
As Krishnendu Ray points out in “The Ethnic Restaurateur,” China has not yet seen enough of a rise (in power and status) to change the perception of its food/cuisine.
Lung King Heen
And then, there’s something else entirely.
Lung King Heen, the world’s first Cantonese restaurant to be awarded 3 Michelin Stars (which is the best rating there is), one of the world’s very best restaurants…
Unsurprisingly, the experience here is very different; elegant, calm, and unobtrusively cared-for. Luxurious, in other words.
I tried to visit for lunch, when they have Dim Sum on the menu.
However, when I tried to reserve a table, only one in the middle of the week (on our very first day in Hong Kong) and for dinner was available for online reservation.
It was some two months in advance…
(They might well have had tables, anyways, but I just didn’t want to short-term try this.)
So, reserve well in advance, if you can.
Changing to come in a party of three rather than two people, and back again because our #3 couldn’t come, after all, would not have been any issue, though. And they make sure to send reminders and ask if everything will work out as planned.
Hong Kong’s ifc mall is well-known and popular – and fancy – enough to be part of a visit to the city, and you can get right into the Four Season’s Hotel through that mall.
Lung King Heen is one of the restaurants in this hotel, officially at 8 Finance St. (but best reached going to Hong Kong or Central stations and walking the covered walkways into the mall, then following the signs to the hotel adjacent to it – or basically, in there).
The view offered is very nice, out away from Victoria Harbor, towards the west; the décor is elegant as one would expect, without overdoing it towards the kitschy or the cold.
The main theme of a restaurant, of course, should better be what you get to eat.
Presentation has become the name of the game in many 3-Star restaurants, to the detriment of actual food. Sure, the experience and the taste sensations are what is meant to count; if you just want to stuff yourself, you can go to any fast-food place.
Here, Lung King Heen was able to shine.
We ordered the (smaller) Chef’s Choice Appetizer Selection, including jellyfish which was quite tasty (and something to mention on the theme of trying things),
grilled eel (quite sweet from the sauce, but nice; very different from the Hunan home-style eel we’ve eaten quite often),
lobster and sea urchin rolls (which were fine to my wife but too rich for me, in the sea food / fat / sea -way of the urchin),
which were brought out as first course.
Yes, we managed to overdo it there, already.
For a refresher in between, we had a hot-and-sour soup…
… which had a pretty strong flavor, but with nuance as well. Good choice, I think, for something quite typically Cantonese and in-between other courses.
Main course was decided to be Sichuan-style pork, which was too chewy for my taste (even if my wife says it’s as it should be), but very nicely aromatized in a distinctly Sichuan-style way that is, for once, not overdoing it with the typical spices, but elegant.
Second main course-dish were wok-fried spicy prawns, with the perfect kind of spice and wok-flavor.
These were quite a revelation to me; I enjoyed them immensely and am still waiting for more chile pepper use in more of the great restaurants, of which they were a fantastic example.
But, by this point, we couldn’t really eat anything anymore.
It was all simply but elegantly presented, and it was all not so little. Not like in some avantgarde restaurants, where the amount of food seems to correlate inversely with the price to be paid…
Our waiter only told us at the finish, and that sums up the approach there pretty well, that “We consider ourselves a fine family dining restaurant.”
Indeed, there was a family eating at the next table; and we wished we’d had our friend (who hadn’t been able to come) accompany us and help finish off all the food. (Although for three people, we might have ordered even more.)
Taking out left-overs, as it turned out, is acceptable even here. Part of the family thing ;)
Perhaps the most noticeable difference to any other, cheaper and simpler, place to eat was with the way the guests are treated.
As we’d also experience on the last leg of our flight home, happening to get upgraded to business class, unobtrusive pampering is the luxury you get if you have the money.
Tim Ho Wan’s 1-star may be alright for the food; I’d have no problem comparing my mother-in-law’s cooking to that even of Lung King Heen (Hey, I like it!), but the atmosphere and the service do set it all apart. A lot.
The waiters give their recommendations when and if appropriate, explain what it is they brought, are there should you look like you need them, but are unobtrusive otherwise.
Hardly do you even notice when the tea pot or your glass is refilled, but you won’t ever have to wait long for that – and the jasmine tea we had was one of the best we ever tasted, by the way.
Of course, there’s the question of expense.
3-star eating doesn’t come cheap, and all I want to say is that we’d ordinarily live off the money we left there for one to two months of buying groceries.
Here, though, I do find that “you should spend your money on experiences, not things” does work out (which I do not think does as unequivocally as often presented), as it was a memorable experience, and something quite different from our experiences so far.
Hot on the heels of finally having celebrated our wedding in China, it was more than just worth it (and in that context, it was also nice that it was just my wife and me).
Their website: http://www.fourseasons.com/hongkong/