Destinasian is one of those rare publications, a travel magazine that still celebrates long format writing. A case in point, a piece for a recent issue on an ‘Extraordinary Experience’ set up by the Four Season Hong Kong involving a full day immersion into the wonderful world of dim sum. Cue a very rare invite into the 3 Michelin star kitchen at the hotel’s Lung King Heen restaurant, before a tour of chef Tak’s favourite and iconic Hong Kong places to eat and dinner back at his restaurant. The experience more than lived up to its name.
In the centre of the wooden workbench a metal bowl of sweet and fragrant char siu pork sits topped with pine nuts, while to one side balls of dough are 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 it on a baking tray, one hundred and twenty in total for the day’s diners. The process is seamless and lightning fast, a blur of fingers, borne from years of repetition and experience.
More delicate still is the construction of layers of fresh scallop, shrimp paste and pear, finished off with a tiny sliver of Yunnan ham. It’s a rare privilege to access any Cantonese restaurant kitchen, all the more so to watch dim sum being made in the first one in the world to boast three Michelin stars.
Lung King Heen at Hong Kong’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, an affirmation of the restaurant’s name which celebrates the legendary beast. Inside individual steamers, it takes one to two minutes for vegetarian dim sum, three for sheets of rice paper rolls and five for delicate xiao long bao. Timing is critical as nothing can leave the kitchen even so much as seconds late, lest texture and mouth feel is compromised.
Elsewhere chickens are marinated in salt before being hung and air dried to remove moisture, ensuring the skin gets tougher before frying, delivering perfect crispiness as a result. Below them the kitchen god shrine looks out for the safety and success of the twenty five 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 promises a range of ‘extraordinary experiences’, allowing guests to enjoy unique and bespoke adventures. In Budapest you can dine onstage at the legendary Opera House, or stargaze with an astronomer in Costa Rica. In Hong Kong, however, cuisine is the star in a unique exploration of the city’s culinary landscape that starts with a kitchen tour, visits iconic Kowloon and finishes with dinner.
Participants have to be guests staying at the Four Seasons and each tour is bespoke, taking into account food preferences and any allergies, as well as special requests for dishes or destinations. Guests are accompanied throughout the tour by a ‘cultural ambassador’ from the hotel, taking care of all the checks, zipping effortlessly between Cantonese, Mandarin and English but most of all explaining the ingredients, preparation and fascinating backstories to each venue and dish.
We leave Lung King Heen behind, temporarily at least – we’ll be back for dinner – but the next stage of our day of culinary exploration awaits, eating in a selection of Chef Tak’s favourite local venues. Some iconic, some unusual, all utterly fascinating windows on one of the world’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 the harbour to Kowloon.
Nathan Congee and Noodle is the first stop. In common with most of the day’s venues, the décor has changed little if at all since it opened sixty years previously. The secret to their success is the base of their sampan congee, so called because it would have originally been prepared with the day’s catch by people living on sampan boats. At Nathan they wake up in the middle of the night to make theirs, using three types of fish, pork skin and definitely no MSG. It’s good stuff with good reason as we share a bowl, using our yauhjagwai doughsticks. More surprising and unusual is the fish skin, not fried but simply boiled and served with soy sauce and scallions.
Next we cross busy Nathan Road on foot to the Australian Dairy Company which celebrates the city’s unique crossover of British and Chinese cuisine. The notoriously surly staff are surprisingly all smiles once we take our seats at the small round table, shared with another diner. Thick toast with creamy scrambled egg, double boiled milk custard pudding, Kaya toast and Cantonese style milk tea allow us to taste some of the most iconic items on the menu. Milk tea started out as a pick-me-up for manual workers needing a boost, while condensed milk was originally used because it was cheaper than fresh. The room buzzes with energy and noise from the calling out of orders, banging of pots, hum of conversation and people enjoying other dishes such as macaroni soup with spam.
Infinitely quieter is our next stop of Mido Café, but not before we’ve walked through Temple Street Market and sipped a chrysanthemum herbal brew at a tea stall formerly owned by the wonderfully-named ‘one-eyed doctor’. You don’t need me to tell you how he got his name. Mido Café is an absolute gem, overlooking the Tin Hau temple and park by Reclamation Street. It’s remarkable to think that the street was so named as it marked the original edge of Victoria harbour, before the city started to ‘reclaim’ land. Frankly, you don’t come to Mido Café for the food. You come for the décor, the atmosphere and the throwback to a gentler, slower age. Not to mention some really odd drinks of which, in the spirit of discovery, I try three.
Hot coke with ginger and lemon is exactly that. Doubtless good for the throat, not so much for the teeth. Cream soda with milk is a do-it-yourself affair, pouring both bottles into the glass at once. It’s interesting, but not in a bad way. Finally there’s a mug of boiling water – with a raw egg in it. To say I’m skeptical would be an understatement but, once stirred vigorously with white sugar, to my enormous surprise it’s delicious, a watery warm custard. We make our way down the narrow staircase, over the original tiled floors and back out to the streets of Yau Ma Tei.
At this halfway stage of the tour it’s important to stress that we’re not finishing everything we order – it’s more about tasting. As is the case in point at our next stop, a snake soup specialist, a dish which is especially popular in the winter for its healing properties which claim to promote inner warmth. A press cutting on the wall proudly mentions what they used to serve, including fox, cat, dog, owl and monkey. Thankfully those days are well behind us. In common with my previous experience eating snake soup, it seemed strangely tasteless, but the brisk business around us proved it was still popular, especially so with an older clientele.
Next we drive the short distance to Sham Shui Po, home to our final three culinary pitstops. First up is a soy bean and tofu lover’s dream straight from a film set, with its one hundred year old stone grinder that pummels the soybeans (from Canada) into the base for a myriad tofu dishes. The dessert tofu fa is a delicate delight, all subtle sweetness and cream, while fried tofu is lifted by a smear of shrimp paste. Our penultimate stop are famous for their noodles with shrimp roe and many late lunchers are enjoying it. Cantopop stars and local celebrities look down at us from photos on the walls as we dig into the maritime mound, with dumplings hidden underneath. It’s rich and deep and indisputably fishy, but not overpoweringly so.
Finally we head to Tim Ho Wan, famous for serving the cheapest Michelin-starred cuisine in the world, where dim sum for two will set you back no more than US$15. Chef Tak can take some of the credit for its extraordinary success, as the restaurant’s owner Mak Pui formerly worked under him at Lung King Heen.
After a few hours rest and digestion, the final footsteps of the dragon lead us back to The Four Seasons for dinner, the finale of the ‘extraordinary experience’ and a special menu devised personally by Chef Tak. The dining room is a calming space, all warm tones and gentle music, with spacious banquette seating for couples as well as more traditional round tables for families and groups. In common with their two-starred neighbor Caprice, Lung King Heen boasts stunning views over the iconic harbor, where the neon rises as the sun goes down.
As the champagne cart glides effortlessly towards us, I spy a Taittinger Comtes De Champagne Blanc De Blancs Brut 2005, an extraordinary cuvée de prestige made famous as James Bond’s champagne of choice. Like Ian Fleming’s most famous character it’s smooth yet occasionally effervescent, always polished and oozing class. The amuse-bouche is the ultimate chef’s calling card, a signifier and tease as to what lies ahead. Chef Tak’s is a simple shrimp wonton. But then there are wontons and three Michelin-starred wontons. Gossamer thin skin is almost translucent, enveloping the plumpest and sweetest shrimp you’re ever going to find. Humble, but brillliant. The marker is laid down.
Next a trinity of flawless siu mei roast meats, namely roast goose, suckling pig and char siu pork. White porcelain bowls contain the usual saucy suspects including Chilli soy, broad bean, shrimp paste, plum, garlic and a dangerously good vegetarian XO, but in this course they’re pretty superfluous as the meats shine brightly all on its own.
The room is now buzzing and busy, the tables packed even on a wintry Monday evening. Chef Tak’s next dish helps explain why, an amazing superior pottage with chicken, brimming with collagen to deliver a breathtaking wave of umami.
Crab is then served dressed in the shell, creamy but cut through with Worcestershire sauce, the whole glorious carapace topped with breadcrumb. No sous vide or liquid nitrogen in sight, just the pinnacle of Chinese cuisine. An Alto Adige Gewürtztraminer is the perfect companion.
Garoupa is arguably Hong Kong’s favorite fish and here it’s steamed simply with ginger and spring onion before being served in a bamboo steamer. It’s delicate and fragrant, lifted by the unusual but effective pairing of Guyuelongshan 10 year old rice wine from near Shanghai. Not unlike a light sherry and made from mountain water, it has body and minerality.
Dinner crescendos with straight-edged cubes of Australian wagyu, technicolor capsicum, seared asparagus and beautifully-cut morels hurried from a searing wok to bowl. Again it’s not deconstructed or innovative, just perfectly-executed. A stunning Brunello di Montalcino Tre Vigne 2009 from southern Tuscany shows that 100% Sangiovese can do no wrong and reminds that it’s DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) for a very good reason.
The last dish before dessert is lobster rice, where the mix is definitely tipped towards the crustacean over the grain. A teaspoon of chilli soy rounds it out, while that XO vegetarian sauce is way too good not to make another appearance.
Chinese desserts are not traditionally sought-after, but Chef Tak breaks the mould here too. Chilled mango and sago cream with Pomelo just works perfectly as a sweet counterpoint to the rich and decadent previous courses, while I learn that wolfberry tea is good for my eyes, even if the creative petits fours subsequently offered are not so beneficial for my waistline.
So the day ends as it began, as Chef Tak comes out from the kitchen. This time he asks us about our Kowloon adventure and evening’s dinner. We thank him for both and, humility personified, he says that his formula is simple: “Without good leadership, good teamwork and good communication, you will never have a truly strong kitchen.” The ultimate recipe for success, following in the footsteps of the dragon.