Written by Norman Lowe. See our new guide to all readers' restaurant reviews.
Last month I had the pleasure of having lunch with a gentleman who has been in the wine business for many years. We had a great chat and one of the topics we discussed was the Michelin star ratings for Hong Kong restaurants. I got interested in it ever since the star ratings first came out, mostly because the restaurants that got stars are mostly restaurants inside five-star hotels (as pictured).
I thought therefore it would be most appropriate if we had a dim sum lunch at Fook Lam Moon, probably one of the most expensive yet underrated Cantonese restaurants in fine dining.
Known mostly as a place for seafood delicacies, the restaurant is actually a great dim sum place for those who like what my friend calls 'hard-core Cantonese food'. Hard core, in this case, really means the taste and the preparation of the food in traditional Cantonese style.
Lunch dim sum menu therefore is anything but fancy: shrimp dumplings (hao gao), steamed pork dumplings (shao mai), barbecue pork buns, sliced roast pork, etc. These one can find at almost any dim sum place. Yet here they painstakingly follow what's considered age-old best practices in terms of preparation (sometimes with a minor twist), and pick only fresh and fitting ingredients regardless of whether it is an expensive dish or not.
For example our shrimp dumplings had very thin wrappings with succulent shrimps. I would hesitate to use the word 'chewy' for shrimps but that's how they feel usually. We also ordered beef brisket and the texture of the beef was a perfect match with the beef sauce.
As we were busy eating, I began to elaborate on my hypothesis, which was later confirmed: The Michelin system puts a lot of weight on consistency. Most hotels therefore have a distinct advantage because the whole organisation follows established procedures that are very strict, from procurement, hiring, to preparation. Their aim is to make every order taste the same. For a restaurant like Fook Lam Moon however, my guess is that there exists an acceptable range in terms of procurement and preparation.
Using a numerical example, top Chinese restaurants at five-star hotels usually get scores of 95 points out of 100, plus or minus 2. Fook Lam Moon would probably be a restaurant that accepts anywhere from 90 to 100 even though in most cases it is in the 96 to 100 range. For evaluators to visit there at least seven times before they put the stars, that variation might have been the deciding factor: any noticeable difference during those seven visits might have caused a downgrade.
And although service is not part of the star evaluation, standards set by five-star hotels would usually be more welcoming than a traditional Cantonese restaurant for visitors. In terms of service styles Fook Lam Moon is more like a family restaurant than a fine-dining establishment. They were not intrusive when my friend and I were having a conversation, yet they were happy to exchange a few words on food and other topics when invited to talk.
When we got to the final dish, sesame buns for dessert (not to be confused with the ones with sesame on the outside, these have ground sesame as a filling), my friend added that these days traditional food just doesn't get rated nearly as highly as its more 'innovative' counterpart on most restaurant reviews. These days, he said, you need to have some sort of fusion crossover with cuisine from other provinces or even countries in order to attract customers and good reviews.
For me innovation is fine as long as it is good, yet I find no reason to dump traditional-style cuisines when they are just as good, if not better. After all, you don't have to follow the newest trend in dining like you do with your mobile phone.
Fook Lam Moon (two locations)
35-45 Johnston Road, Wanchai, Hong Kong
53-59 Kimberley Road, Tsimshatsui, Kowloon