The Chinese aren’t the most sentimental people. Mainlanders only recently started to fetishize the past with the creation of Maoist, peasant-themed eateries. It takes a more Westernized city like Hong Kong to name a high end restaurant Hutong after the maze-like back alley dwellings rapidly being demolished in Beijing.
I avoided slick restaurants on vacation (Robuchon, while expensive, was more garish-regal) but for our final evening in Asia I wanted to do the whole guidebook-approved fancy cocktails and dinner overlooking the skyline. And you’ll end up paying for that, no getting around it. Not only are the Chinese un-sentimental, they have no problem requiring customers to spend set minimums. At Aqua, one floor above Hutong on 29, you are must spend HK$120 to enjoy the atmosphere. No one ever need encourage me to order two drinks (which easily added up to more than the $16 rule) so that wasn’t a problem.
It did seem odder to set a number (HK$300/US$39) at a chic restaurant. I’ve never encountered practices like sharing fees and $10 per person musts at diners and the like. But I knew this going in based on the confirmation email that also spelled out the no short, slippers or sleevelessness (for men only, I would think) policy. I can see dirty backpackers being a problem in Bangkok but Hong Kong doesn’t really attract the bumming around element. Or maybe they are trying to keep out those pesky Chinese who wouldn’t stop wearing pajamas in public even for the Olympics.
Unfortunately, I goofed off like a good tourist taking copious photos of the glowing red and blue interior and picture window view so poor I was forced to delete them. At 8pm, they start a laser light, pyrotechnic show, “A Symphony of Lights” in Victoria Harbor (and we think the Empire State Building periodically changing color themes is hot shit) which is hard to ignore. In no time I got a red battery low signal that had me panicked over missing shots of our last supper.
I greatly prefer the strong flavors of Northern Chinese food over the pure delicateness Cantonese is known for or else I would’ve booked a place like Lung King Heen, recently bestowed with three Michelin stars. I’ll eat atmospherics right up too; the wire bird cages that sit on each round antique carved wood table until diners arrive and they’re whisked away, the dim cavernous space with outer edges divvied up into mysterious private nooks and even the rendition of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” orchestrated on plinky Chinese string instruments. The cover was almost as good as the first time I heard Musak version of “Hungry Like the Wolf” piped into a Hallmark two decades ago.
The food wasn’t anything like the upscale Chinese that plagues NYC. The Waikyas, Buddakans, I don’t know, maybe Shang (I haven’t tried it yet but have higher hopes). Hutong served Chinese food that was actually good. And being Hong Kong, items you’d never see on an American glossy menu—marinated pig’s throats, lamb organ soup, lots of salty egg yolks and crab roe—were right at home. I’m still not certain what “crispy yuppies” are. I’d guess a fish, as
this dish was listed in the seafood section, but that could also be
because it sounds like guppies.
Family-sized portions provided way more than I had expected. Thankfully, the chilled daikon crab meat rolls were light. The sweet-vinegary edamame cabbage slaw on the right was a freebie relish/appetizer.
Lamb ribs were a signature dish and present on nearly every table. I acquiesced. I would be good with these crackly skinned, lightly fatty slabs replacing pork belly as cut of choice. If I’m correct, the meat is de-boned and slow cooked while the skin is fried separately then reconstructed. Accompaniments included crushed garlic, julienned scallion whites and a soy based sauce. The sharp raw garlic and onions helped cut the natural sweetness.
The fish head wasn’t on anyone’s table, and got lots of ogling from the Middle Eastern couple sitting near us who asked the waiter what we had. I’ve never encountered a Sichuan fish head preparation and am not sure whether it’s traditional or not. Who cares? The sauce tasted salty and hot from chile bean paste and was enriched with minced pork, very much like a ma po tofu preparation.
The last surviving photo from Hong Kong/Singapore/Macau extravaganza 2008. My battery died immediately after I snapped this shot of the “jade” bamboo shoots. Not only did these taste amazing, they also were incredibly pretty, pale green and glistening. I thought they had forgotten this dish since it arrived half-way through the meal; there was no rhyme or order to the courses. I could’ve sworn these were cooked in butter as they tasted salty and rich, though the menu only said wok-fried with no clues. I’m not crazy about gloopy cornstarch-thickened vegetables so these were perfect.
We did the high in the sky, bar with a view sandwich (or is that a bookend) and had a few nightcaps at Felix, famous for its window-facing urinal in the men’s room. I had no idea how tiny—one long table and a curving leather banquette off to the side of the circular counter–the Philippe Starck-designed bar was. Or how much the peach and pistachio pudding color scheme enhanced by underlit marble reminded me of ‘80s Santa Fe style with a dash of Golden Girls’ Miami. It never looks like that in photos, though. It’s quite possible that my observation skills were dulled by too much food and drink.
Hutong * 1 Peking Rd., 28/F, Hong Kong