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  • Nick Lander
Written by
  • Nick Lander
27 Mar 2010

This article was also published in the Financial Times.

After Winchester, Oxford and a stint with Lehmann Brothers in Tokyo, Fergus Fung now has two seemingly disparate roles in Hong Kong.

He is the founder of the annual WOM (Word of Mouth), the leading guide to HK's restaurants, as well as being a district councillor for Deepwater Bay. And, having walked the streets of Hong Kong with him, I can vouch that his political skills certainly make it easier for him to discover what is going on behind the scenes and why Hong Kong has one of the highest rates of restaurant openings and closures in the world.

I had originally contacted him purely for clarification. Hong Kong has always been for me somewhere to enjoy the most exciting Cantonese food. And yet every press release or news item that has come my way recently only seems to have announced the arrival of yet another top chef from overseas.

French chefs Alain Ducasse, Pierre Gagnaire and Joel Robuchon have their restaurants there. Roka and Zuma from London have outposts. And all may soon to be joined by branches of Jamie's, Jamie Oliver's mid-price Italian restaurant, and wagamama, the inexpensive noodle chain. Was there the appetite for any new Cantonese restaurants, I wondered?

Fung's first recommendation of the second branch of Fu Sing in Causeway Bay (the original is in Wanchai), opened by chefs formerly from the renowned Fook Lam Moon restaurant, went a long way to putting my mind at rest.

I was joined there by an old friend, born and bred in Shanghai, who had no sooner sat down than he said one of the reasons he had been so pleased to be transferred to Hong Kong was the opportunity to walk down Johnston Street and Shanghai Street in Kowloon to eat inexpensive Cantonese food. We were both impressed by Fu Sing's rendition of char sui, slices of crisp roast pork; soy sauce chicken; stir-fried beef cubes with garlic; and a plate of bean curd with peanuts in soy sauce which my friend always orders to calm his stomach after too much travel.

I joined the urbane Fung the following day at The Chairman, a restaurant five minutes' walk from Central, which, since it opened last May, has justifiably played to full houses. Both he and the restaurant interior were unmissable.

Fung, 34, was wearing a blue striped suit, shirt and tie with a dark blue handkerchief in his breast pocket and highly polished black shoes. He looked every inch the politician. The restaurant's interior, by contrast, is entirely white, including one wall of white leather squares.

The Chairman's food served on white plates on a white tablecloth is most impressive, including three dishes whose colour was predominantly white: noodles cooked in the stock of crab in white wine; thick, comforting congee; and a delicate almond soup as dessert. Best of all, however, was the first course of a dark brown ten bean soup.

The Chairman represents for Fung a new direction in Cantonese cooking which he calls SOL, seasonal, organic and local. 'As Hong Kong has boomed over the years', he explained, 'chefs have grown accustomed to having their food flown in or trucked in from all over southern China. That's finally changing now.'

This process is being encouraged by the spread of the local chapter of the Slow Food Movement, pioneered by Chris Robinson and Annabel Jackson, formerly PR for the Mandarin Hotel. Their endeavours are made easier by the emergence of producers such as Tam Keung, now renowned for his pork, and the fact that many from the city are going back at the weekends to work their farms, a significant contrast to the seemingly incessant growth of HK's satellite towns.

Outside, Fung explained two basic principles of life for any HK restaurateur. The first is that Hong Kongers are besotted with the new, and this means that any opening will be extremely busy but this enthusiasm will invariably last only until the next well-publicised opening. (The current favourite is the Italian Otto e Mezzo in Central.)

Then there are the rents, invariably high because of the natural shortage of land, and exacerbated by the fact that the landlords always demand a top-up based on a percentage of turnover. Quite how difficult it is for first-time restaurateurs Fung was promptly able to demonstrate by pointing to the Closed for Business signs on two restaurants, Beso and Burger Republic, next door to one another. Restaurateurs want to be in Central for the sheer number of potential customers it attracts day and night but few today can afford the rent.

As we walked past Kau Kee, the corner stall famous for its beef brisket and noodles, Fung grew even more enthusiastic about the renaissance of Hong Kong's standing for genuine, inexpensive Cantonese food.

'There had been a concerted attempt to do away with what we call "dai pai dong", the large outdoor food stalls, but happily this has gone no further. There are seven round here and 28 in total which have survived, of which I'm pleased to say I have eaten at all but one. Now that these can be handed down from generation to generation there is every chance that these will only prosper', Fung added with a greedy smile.

The importance of successive generations' ensuring the survival of the most authentic Cantonese restaurants surviving in Hong Kong was highlighted by a return visit to Luk Yu Tea House in Central and my first to Tim's Kitchen, a ten-minute walk away.

Luk Yu with its lacquered, wooden booths, waitresses strolling between crowded tables with large trays of dim sum, has not changed since my first visit over 30 years ago. Drawn back by its historic charm for two consecutive breakfasts, I couldn't help noticing the same customers sitting in exactly the same seats.

The twenty-seater Tim's Kitchen derives its name from chef Yau Tim Lai, who began as an apprentice 40 years ago in the banqueting kitchens of the influential Hang Seng Bank, but now oversees everything with his son, Maurice. By day the menu offers a range of excellent but uncomplicated Cantonese dishes and there is a range of more intricate set menus with sittings at 6.30pm and 8.30pm. Highlights were a crab claw with winter melon; pomelo skin with shrimp roe; and grouper fillets with asparagus. Best of all, however, was the news that in May Tim's Kitchen will move to a more comfortable site in nearby Bonham Strand.

Happily, exciting Cantonese food still thrives in Hong Kong.

Word of Mouth, www.WOMguide.com

Fu Sing, 1/F, 353 Lockhart Road, tel 852 2893 0881.

The Chairman, www.thechairmangroup.com

Luk Yu Tea House, 24-26 Stanley Street, tel 852 2523 5464

Tim's Kitchen, www.timskitchen.com.hk