This article was also published in the Financial Times.
As I walked into the M Bar on the 25th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong at 6.45 pm, I spotted my friend sitting at a corner table, glass of Krug champagne by his side. A minute later I was reaching for my notebook and pen.
This had nothing to what had been said but with what I had just witnessed. On realising that what I needed was a Bloody Mary to stave off jet lag, my friend raised his hand to attract a waiter's attention. The raised hand was noticed, matched, and in seconds a waiter was with us, eager to take my order.
My host smiled. 'I've been living here for 20 years and I still think this style of swift service is the defining aspect of being in Hong Kong. No other city I have ever been to can match it.'
This extraordinary level of service has been maintained, despite the rapidly growing number of new restaurants opening across parts of this city, as in London and New York, where they barely existed only a couple of years ago.
Over dim sum the following morning at an old favourite in Stanley Street, Luk Yu Tea House, Fergus Fung, editor of the Word of Mouth restaurant guide now in its ninth edition, cited the suburb of Tai Hang, once home to garages and car mechanics, as the latest new restaurant hub. He added ruefully that there had been so many openings in the past year that keeping up with all of them had been almost as exhausting as living with his three-year-old twins.
Our 48 hours in Hong Kong, timed to coincide with the FT's Wine Gala for the Room to Read literacy charity, which raised a record US$3.3 million, barely allowed me time to move outside the Central District. But immediately after leaving The Mandarin for dinner at a new restaurant, modestly entitled The Boss, I became aware that it takes more than a collection of scurrying waiters to generate a good night out.
At The Boss our welcome was not warm; the lighting down to the basement restaurant was harsh; and, as we were shown to our table for five, I noticed something rather unusual: there was not a single table for two in the long, narrow restaurant. Having sat down, and taken in the television sets and the photos of winning racehorses dotted around the room, still with inordinately bright lighting accentuated by a low ceiling, I came to the conclusion that The Boss must qualify as the most unromantic restaurant setting I have come across.
A menu of several pages is also somewhat disconcerting as the headings range from Chef's Recommendations to the Executive Chef's Recommendations to simply Delicious. Our decision-making was eased by the fact that a Chinese friend had kindly phoned ahead to order three dishes, but there was an unevenness in the overall quality.
An opening dish of warm mushrooms sautéed with preserved vegetables and truffles, an ingredient the kitchen is particularly fond of, was good, as was a closing dish of truffled rice, egg white and dried scallop. Crab with spicy noodles and a braised garoupa were well cooked but The Boss's signature chicken dish was lacklustre, and one dish, of oysters glazed with honey that my host was encouraged by the manager to order, is a most forgettable combination. The waiters scurried but The Boss did not live up to its billing.
For Romain Blanchard, the general manager of Duddell's, also in Central, a particular challenge of supervising his speedy staff is physical. A tall Frenchman, Blanchard, loiters with intent, as all good restaurateurs do, not far below the ceiling of the third floor, in rooms that were originally offices. And the history of this address, rather than the menu, preoccupied the first 15 minutes of my conversation with my old friend Dickie Lau.
Now sitting comfortably on a well-padded yellow banquette, Lau recalled how in 1970 he had been interviewed on that very floor for the job of office boy at a monthly salary of HK$300 per month in the metal-trading company I joined in 1976. Lau went on to become its star trader before retiring, aged 50, to spend more time on the tennis courts of the exclusive Hong Kong Country Club.
As though to put me through my paces, Lau proffered no advice as to what to order, but what ensued was a series of dishes that clearly demonstrated just how exciting the best Cantonese cooking can be – particularly in extracting not just the flavours but also the contrasting textures of the ingredients.
We began with a plate of mixed dim sum in which again diced truffles featured – in fact I heard of one local businessman whose PA phoned ahead to at least one famous restaurant to enquire whether he could bring his own truffles – and spicy, fried rice rolls. This was followed by fillets of eel; an excellent half a roast chicken, the meat succulent and the skin crisp; garoupa with bok choy; and a casserole in which diced aubergine had been braised with bean curd and sweet chili.
As I helped Lau and myself to a third serving of this dish, he smiled and said that he was surprised I liked it so much as it is a particularly Cantonese dish. I replied that this was the style of cooking that would keep me scurrying back to Hong Kong.
The Boss Basement, Peter Building, 58-62 Queen's Road, Central, Hong Kong
tel +852 2155 0552
Duddell's Level 3, Shangai Tang Manson, 1 Duddell Street, Central, Hong Kong
tel +852 2525 9191