Lung King Heen, Four Seasons Hotel, Hong Kong
Is Lung King Heen the best Chinese restaurant in the world? Terry Durack finds out
Sunday 19 March 2006
Hong Kong's grand hotels have fallen for the celebrity game. The hottest tables in town are Alain Ducasse's Spoon at the InterContinental, and the glamorous Caprice at the Four Seasons, offshoot of the three-starred Le Cinq in Paris. At the Landmark Mandarin Oriental, fêted designer Adam Tihany has installed golden organ pipes to hover over the Gagnaire-influenced food of chef Richard Ekkebus.
Pierre Gagnaire himself is soon to set up at the newly renovated Mandarin Oriental, Nobu comes to the InterContinental, and Joel Robuchon is casting around for a site. All of which is fine - if you want to travel to the Far East in order to eat the Near West.
But there is one restaurant that has turned fashion, trends and Hong Kong itself on its head. The Lung King Heen at the Four Seasons is a sleek, contemporary restaurant dedicated to the timeless art of Cantonese cuisine, with its fanatical emphasis on freshness, uncluttered flavours and contrasting textures. It's a throwback to the city's pre-celebrity era, when the hotels brought a new refinement to the Cantonese dining experience by adding sweeping harbour views, precious jade place settings, silver chopsticks, hierarchical service and fine cellars. Without the Mandarin's Man Wah, Shangri-La's Shang Palace, the then Regent's Lai Ching Heen and The Peninsula's Spring Moon, London's Hakkasan and China Tang could never have existed.
Lung King Heen means "view of the dragon", no doubt referring to the views of the harbour. Unlike most restaurants with extraordinary views, you are not forcibly made conscious of it; instead, it gives a sense of space and light to the understated modernity. Wooden floors, leather chairs, silver-leafed ceilings and tables under such exquisite damask I live in fear of soy sauce, add to the sense of contemporary luxe.
Fellow diners at today's lunch barely glance at the harbour, with eyes only for their food and the inevitable business papers from the nearest Wealth Management Conference. There are no glamourpuss tai-tais here (rich businessmen's wives); this is too serious for them, too much like eating.
While imported luxuries such as truffles, Wagyu beef and foie gras sit beside local delicacies such as shark's-fin, bird's-nest, abalone and double-boiled soups, there are also simpler, more modest dishes, including a short but highly seductive dim sum list.
But first things first: a tray of three house-made chilli sauces (broad bean, XO, and soy/garlic) land on the table. Then a little appetite-teaser of lightly fried scallop sandwiched with fresh pear - a perfect balance of crisp and tender, sweet and savoury.
I choose three delicacies from the dim sum menu, and find them flawless. One, a deliciously bright and bouncy steamed lobster and scallop dumpling (£2.20 each); two, a steamed seafood and scrambled-egg-white dumpling (£1) that is like eating clouds; and three, a golden sesame ball filled with roast duck and taro (£1) that is a total textural treat. Yauatcha and Hakkasan, I love you still, but you have serious competition here.
Chef Chan Yan Tak, who cooked for 16 years at the Lai Ching Heen, has a particularly light hand with fish. Small fillets of star garoupa (£22) are lightly steamed, belted with green chive and topped with pearly flakes of pure white crab meat. They are so moist, fresh and sweet, it is like eating warm sushi.
Crisp frog's legs with spicy salt (£12) served in a basket fashioned from hundreds of tiny crisped whitebait, are better than crisp-fried chicken and more interesting than chilli-salt squid.
A humble dish such as beef brisket hotpot (£10) becomes noble, the full-flavoured meat so silky you could spread it. Tempted to push the boat out, I order a whole small chicken baked in clay with black Périgord truffle (£15), which comes still sizzling in its rendered golden fat, though slightly overcooked. At least the chef is human; I was starting to wonder.
Desserts, a greatly misunderstood aspect of Chinese cuisine, are quite exquisite. The Lung King Heen dessert sampler (£6) brings a fluorescently orange chilled sago cream, rich with mango and pomelo; a baked walnut puff that's the dead spit of a real walnut; and a pretty, pink diamond of osmanthus jelly studded with wolfberries.
While the well-endowed wine list includes a 1975 Petrus for £1,270, most tables keep to the equally well-endowed tea list. Xifeng Lung Jin green tea (£6) is fresh and refreshing, while Super White Peony (£3) carries the lingering fragrance of water lilies.
Cantonese cuisine has always deserved its place as one of the world's most complete, confident and creative cuisines, with a purity and healthfulness that goes far beyond the renditions found in our local neighbourhood Chinese. I have long feared that its principles and practices would no longer be upheld in these days of Pot Noodles and crispy duck, but today's experience - and its remarkable value - gives me hope for the future. Lung King Heen is the new point of reference for Cantonese dining, and I feel honoured to have eaten there.
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
Lung King Heen, Four Seasons Hotel, 8 Finance Street, Central, Hong Kong, tel: 00 852 3196 8888
Lunch and dinner served daily. Around £125 for two, including wine and service
Second helpings: Other hot Hong Kong tables
Caprice Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong, 8 Finance Street, Central, tel: 00 852 3196 8860
This Hong Kong outpost of the three-starred Le Cinq in Paris is the hottest ticket in town. The glam crowd comes for the harbour views, killer wine list and bespectacled chef Vincent Thierry's crayfish and pork-belly gratin with Sichuan pepper, and "thin tart of virtual coffee".
Amber The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, 15 Queen's Road, Central, tel: 00 852 2132 0188
Future shock comes to dinner in this dramatic, Adam Tihany-designed dining room. Prepare to be amazed by the computerised touch- screen wine list, and by chef Richard Ekkebus' transparent oyster ravioli and sesame oil-seared tuna with crisp chicken skin.
Opia Jia hotel, 1 Irving Street, Causeway Bay, tel: 00 852 3196 9100
Highly regarded Melbourne chef Teage Ezard has made himself at home in this striking Philippe Starck-designed boutique hotel. The Asian-influenced, modern-Australian menu runs from Japanese-inspired oyster shooters to Sichuan-peppered duck and sumac-spiced lamb.
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