Monday, September 03, 2007

Central Hong Kong: International Food in International Alleys

M at the Fringe

One of the best things about eating in Hong Kong is finding good food in the unlikeliest of places. From holes in the wall to swanky restaurants, first impressions are always the wrong impressions.

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M at the Fringe seems follow that line of thought. Located in a strange old building that looks like a public toilet, the only indication that there might be a restaurant there is the lone menu that's pinned up when you enter the dark entrance.

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Going up, the hallway is strangely dim and silent, and a red stairwell leads up into the unknown. As my friend said, it seemed like something out of Disney's House of Horrors.

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Entering the restaurant itself though, all fears are dispelled. The walls are painted in artsy hues, a massive flower decoration in the centre of the restaurant commands attention, and the service is courteous and friendly.

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Though empty at first, the restuarant very quickly filled up, and seeing as how M at the Fringe has the reputation of being one of Hong Kong's best restaurants, it would be a very good idea to secure a reservation.

Food here is eclectic European and defies classification; drawing inspiration from French, Spanish, Italian and almost every other European cuisine.

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The gazpacho was done in two styles: traditional Andalucian red and creamy ajo blanco, both cold. The traditional was excellent, sweet, piquant with a hint of basil and tomato oil. The ajo blanco however, was less enjoyable, being extremely creamy and possessing a strange, powdery texture that I did not like at all.

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The squid ink risotto, however, was absolutely amazing. Perfectly executed, each grain reached that sublime point of almost fusing, but still retaining their individuality. More importantly, the squid was not at all rubbery, and the flavour of the ink and acidity of the lemon juice cut through distinctly. The entire thing was finished in a few minutes.

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One of M's specialities is their version of suckling pig, a mammoth order of pork with crispy crackling, served with glazed apple and fennel, in a pork sauce. I'm not a big fan of pork, and the huge portion was too much for me to finish. The crackling was quite addictive, though.

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The name of my dessert was "It Takes Two to Mango", which I found really amusing. What it entailed was a triumphal mango souffle, served with a cold mango sorbet. This was an excellent dessert - the mango souffle towered out of its ramekin, and the flavour of the mango mellowed some of the richness of the egg. Paired with the cold sorbet, it reminded me why mango is one of my favoured fruits.

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What M at the Fringe is apparently very famous for, is their pavlova. A crusty baked meringue topped with fresh fruits, whipped cream and passionfruit sauce, I can't think of a sweeter way to end dinner.

M at the Fringe
2 Lower Albert Road, Central
Tel: 852 2877 4000


Hands up anyone who's ever had Japanese pasta. Can't imagine there can be that many.

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Te's a really interesting eatery that's good for a quick, appealing meal. Found it, coincidentally, on Sook's Food Notes, after she tried it while in Hong Kong. Almost impossible to locate unless you know what you're looking for, it's above the 7-11 along Cochrane Street.

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A Japanese restaurant specialising in Italian pasta, Te has managed to effectively fuse the two traditions: Japanese efficiency and Italian cuisine. Upon ordering and paying for your food at the counter, the staff immediately begin cooking your meal (you can actually see it happen - it's an open kitchen), and it arrives in about the amount of time it takes you to find a seat.

The secret to their ruthless efficiency is that everything is prepared - the pasta has been pre-cooked and freeze-dried in exact portions, the clams are sealed in vacuum-packed bags in exact portions, there's a squeeze bottle of garlic oil get the idea.

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Recommendations include the mentaiko pasta and the spaghetti Japonese, which is basically vongole with Shimeiji mushrooms.

The flavours are excellent, the pasta is al dente, and the concept is unusual. Te is a great place for lunch or dinner if you're in a hurry, or just looking for some really good pasta even if you're not.

1/F, Cheung Hing Commercial Building,
37 Cochrane Street, Central
Tel: 852 2110 6910


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Lotus is an Australian style bar-restaurant that has a lot going for it. It looks like it would be equally at home in bustling Lan Kwai Fong or trendy Soho, yet it occupies a modest spot on one of Central's most innocuous streets.

Featuring a modern Asian menu by a talented young Australian chef, and boasting possibly the most creative drinks on the island (by one of these new-fangled mixologists), Lotus is a great place to lounge around for drinks or to enjoy a good Asian-style dinner.

I say Asian-style because while the menu is clearly Thai-influenced, there are plenty of non-traditional elements to spice up the act. Also, unlike other Thai restaurants, the portions here are quite generous, and it took us great difficulty to finish just three dishes.

One of which was a cassia bark chicken with black vinegar caramel Sichuan salt and pepper. The contrived name notwithstanding, it was actually really good. We were given a whole chicken, which had a crispy layer of skin brushed with black vinegar and caramel, giving it a sweet yet tangy flavour. The chicken itself was meaty, and had a bit of crunch due to a sprinkling of sesame seeds.

To go with that, we had a Pheanang curry of slow braised beef cheek with Thai basil and chilli. Another slow-cooked beef dish, but this time in Western fashion. The beef was fork tender, and the curry was somewhat sweet, redolent with the aroma of the meat and the fragrant basil.

After all that, the stir-fried Asian vegetables with Thai basil and tofu seemed a little ordinary, but they were competently done and rounded out the meal nicely.

Lotus occupies a useful midway between the really cheap eats off the streets and the decidedly swankier joints around town. Popular with a chic crowd, who come to enjoy the drinks more than the food, Lotus is the sort of place that has something for everyone.

37-43 Pottinger Street, Central
Tel: 852 2543 6290

Lin Heung Tea House

I must admit to being fairly disappointed with the dimsum offerings in Hong Kong. People keep telling me I've been going to the wrong places; but dim sum and Hong Kong are a bit like France and foie gras - so deeply associated with the cultural identity of the place that the foreign psyche has been indelibly ingrained with the belief that one cannot possibly be dissatisfied, no matter where one goes for the food in question.

So when I found a few oblique references to Lin Heung ("Fragrant Lotus"), one of the last remaining traditional teahouses in Hong Kong still serving dimsum, I was instantly intrigued.

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As it turns out, I'd walked past Lin Heung previously, and wondered why there was such a long queue snaking out the door (I use the term loosely - there isn't one).

Authentic old-school dimsum plus long queues? I'm there! What particularly attracted me were the reports that the dimsum baskets still came served on trolleys, and it was "dimsum conducted in the same way as in the 60s".

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The problem, of course, is that in the 60s, no one spoke any English. Also, no one got their own table. Sure enough, these wonderful traits have been preserved, so it's best to go with someone who speaks Cantonese, and with the possibility of having to share an exceedingly cramped table in mind, because the place gets exceedingly crowded during lunchtime.

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Basically people have to hover around tables and swoop the moment the other patrons leave. If you gamble wrongly, it could mean another fifteen minute wait. The cacophony of chopsticks clacking, of old men greeting each other and tea being poured is pervasive, as are the odours of pork lard and rice flour.

If you're here with friends - make sure they know what to expect. I was soaking up the sounds and smells, but my friends from Hong Kong looked distinctly uncomfortable, probably unused to the colloquial nature of Lin Heung, a far cry from the normal civilised dimsum houses.

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Still, you're here for the atmosphere, and no one could accuse Lin Heung of being gimmicky - not even when the dim sum comes on metal trolleys pushed by little old ladies. There's no menu; you just pick what you want off the carts.

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Granted, the food isn't as refined and delicate as some of the posher dimsum joints. But it's still delicious; made and served in a fashion that bespeaks custom. Har gao, siew mai, cheong fun...all the perennials are here; you just have to find the right cart.

Lin Heung Tea House
160-164 Wellington Street, Central
Tel: 852 2544 2556

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