By Sarah Treleaven
Photography by Lauryn Ishak
Bo Innovation is the kind of place where a waiter might wince if a single drop of sparkling water falls from the bottle onto the table. But this Hong Kong institution still manages to pull off a playful vibe. Antique toys line the walls, and the restaurant’s tasting menu is ambitious yet cheeky: A few minutes after I sit down, the Child’s Play dish arrives, and I bite into a savory egg waffle stuffed with spring onion and jamón ibérico. It’s an homage to a classic Hong Kong food, with a decidedly liberal twist.
Hong Kong’s culinary scene has long been famous for its ritzy international offerings and traditional dim sum, but over the last several years, it has quietly undergone a renaissance. Local chefs across the city are modernizing many of the cuisine’s most classic dishes and breaking free of Cantonese conventions, which tend to favor seafood, rice, and braised meats prepared in highly specific ways. What’s more, these restaurants represent the emergence of distinct Hong Kong creations, which have sometimes been brushed aside by a legacy of colonialism and traditional Chinese influence. Hong Kong’s new Cantonese cuisine belongs exclusively to itself, and it showcases the diverse details of life in this subtropical city.
Self-taught chef Alvin Leung – known as the “Demon Chef” – paved the way for modern Cantonese cuisine when he opened this three-Michelin-starred restaurant in 2003, using molecular-gastronomy techniques to add levity, texture, and intrigue to familiar dishes. Leung’s food (he calls it “X-Treme Chinese”) offers an elaborately presented dining experience in the form of an 18-course tasting menu featuring dishes that lean heavily on nostalgia, including tributes to Bruce Lee, former fishing villages now full of skyscrapers, and personal childhood favorites. Leung transforms everyday dishes, from a beef brisket noodle soup enlivened by strips of tender beef in a rich broth to “chicken congee” in the form of risotto topped with abalone and sharp spring onions. In a city teeming with options, this is a contender for the premier dinner-as-theater experience.
Taking the escalator down to this space in the basement of the Standard Chartered Bank Building in Central feels like descending into an intimate lair that Bond villains might favor for a power lunch. The food, however, is all goodness and light, the air fragrant with sizzling garlic. The honeyed char siu – a classic barbecued pork dish that’s omnipresent, with some small tweaks, across the city – is tender, with fabulous caramelized bits. Chef Lee Man Sing, who earned two Michelin stars while at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong (and also recently opened Mott 32’s sister restaurant, John Anthony), balances flavors expertly: Dumplings bursting with grouper are topped with tiny dunes of black caviar, and cumin-heavy lamb is served alongside white fungus and okra.
The dominant decor feature at this hip diner that opened in 2017 is neon lighting – bright rays fan out across walls covered in mint-green and dusty-pink tiles, and multicolor sculpture art glows over the well-stocked bar. May Chow – named Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2017 – likens her restaurant to a Wong Kar-Wai movie, influenced by Hong Kong’s teahouses, massage parlors, and mah-jongg rooms. The menu is full of fun, lighthearted references, swapping familiar ingredients for surprising alternatives, such as Hong Kong’s ubiquitous sweet and crispy egg waffles – but made with sourdough and served with bottarga (salty fish roe) whip. Char siu arrives at tables atop rice doused with pork oil, a throwback to times when pricey meats were fried in an oil that was then used as a condiment to stretch the flavor. Cocktails incorporate local ingredients such as chrysanthemum and pandan-infused fernet.
Dim sum is Hong Kong’s iconic meal, and the city is full of options, ranging from Michelin-starred fine dining to cheap and cheerful neighborhood joints with birdcages hanging from the ceiling. The mission for Social Place (part of a three-restaurant chain started three years ago in Hong Kong) was to create a hip atmosphere for a younger clientele less interested in stodgy food traditions. On a recent Saturday, the Tsim Sha Tsui location was full of multigenerational families enjoying a style of dim sum that incorporates in-vogue ingredients such as pickled ginger and black truffles. The black charcoal buns filled with custard and swiped with gold taste like egg tarts, and were clearly created with Instagram in mind, and the fiery and tender Szechuan fried chicken introduces a bright, refreshing mango sauce served in an eggshell that elevates the dish’s flavor and cools the palate.
Ho Lee Fook
The first thing diners see when they walk into Ho Lee Fook is a bright, open kitchen where chef Jowett Yu and his hyperfocused team prepare the evening’s meals. The dusky subterranean dining room is more convivial: Loud, old-school hip-hop competes with conversation from an animated crowd, and light boxes covering the walls illuminate art depicting classic Hong Kong city scenes. The menu offers a range of reinvented family-style dishes: Shrimp toast draws sweetness from creamy mayonnaise, and generous hunks of lamb and chili oil complement dan dan noodles coated in sweet peanut sauce. Save room for the “Breakfast 2.0” dessert – the sweet cornflakes, walnut oatmeal, cocoa coffee crumbs, and ice cream present a delightful twist on sugar cereal in milk.