Forget Michelin stars and multi-page menus - there's only one thing you need at Hong Kong's Yung Kee
Yung Kee, 32-40 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong, tel: 00 852 2522 1624
Sunday 12 April 2009
The first Michelin Guide to Hong Kong and Macau was launched late last year. But who needs it? The Chinese themselves are the toughest food critics of all. Take Yuan Mei, the Qing dynasty poet/scholar, who, before sitting down to a banquet, would send word down to the cook that he must do better tomorrow.
So any restaurant that has lasted 67 years in the middle of Hong Kong must be doing something right. At Yung Kee, that something is roast goose, the knee-jerk choice for a great Hong Kong meal ever since a penniless kitchen apprentice called Kam Shui Fai started a simple roast-goose stall in 1942.
The fact that the restaurant, now run by Kam's sons, has just received a Michelin star is rather beside the point. The four floors of dining-rooms still heave with 1,000 diners every lunch and dinner regardless – and everybody who comes here, from George W Bush to three-star chef Thomas Keller, wants the goose.
But first, there is another house specialty: the notorious century egg (£1.50). A love it/ hate it sort of thing, the egg is preserved in a mixture of clay and ash for weeks until the yolk turns into a sticky dark tarpit that is wonderfully creamy in the mouth, and the white transforms into a clear dark-brown jelly. A little rose-pink ginger on the side tastes like a zingy pickled fruit salad. Love it.
The menu seems to go on forever, with the first seven pages devoted to lists of inedible medals, awards and gongs dating back to 1968, followed by Cantonese classics such as barbecued Chinese pork, steamed live fish and Imperial abalone. Assistant manager Kevin Kam, grandson of the restaurant's founder, helps steer my order, warning that dishes will arrive "Chinese-style" – as the kitchen prepares them.
The atmosphere is reminiscent of Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet, all hustle, bustle, noise and clatter. Large families gather around whole steamed fish, grandmas feed tots, tourists gawp and expats scare visiting rellies with century eggs under lighted columns wrapped in gold dragons. But behind the traditional clamour, you sense an intelligent rethink. Everything is smart, clean, polished. Wine glasses are Riedel and Spiegelau, linen is fine and creamy, and unlike many popular Hong Kong restaurants, not only is the menu accessible for tables of less than eight, the wine list is extensive, well priced and up to date.
And the goose? The Black Crest breed is sourced from Guangdong, roasted in charcoal ovens in the third-floor kitchen and priced at £12 for a quarter portion (enough for two), £19 for a half, and £38 for a whole goose. Our serving has glossy, lacquered skin, a light chew, and a slightly citrussy mandarin-peel high note throughout the juicy, gamey meat and its pooling juices. It is quintessentially Cantonese, in that the cooking has assisted it to taste more of itself than anything else. All you need with it is a bowl of plain steamed rice and a platter of local choy sum cabbage (£6.50) tossed with garlic and ginger, and nothing more. If you were normal, that is.
I add a dish of snapping-fresh, fried-then-braised garoupa (£16) that has sweet, almost translucent, flesh; and a plate of long, thin, shrimp rolls cloaked in delicate snow-white pastry (£10) that puts the spring back into spring rolls. Only a dish of scrambled eggs with bean shoots and crab meat (£9.50) is woefully ordinary, shreddy and stringy rather than soft and curdy. I make a mental note to ask the chef to do better tomorrow, but seeing as I won't be here tomorrow, I order a warming, sweet red-bean soup to aid the digestion, then virtually waddle out the door.
Do visit Yung Kee when on a stopover or holiday in Hong Kong – not because it has a Michelin star, but because it's as much a part of the town as the Star Ferry, and even more fun.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
Yung Kee, 32-40 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong, tel: 00 852 2522 1624. Lunch and dinner daily. Around £90 for two
The crunch bunch: More Hong Kong staples
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