Our mission, if we were to accept it, seemed simple enough: in 48 hours in Hong Kong, stuff our faces with as much interesting food as we could. Full of hope and empty of stomach, James and I boarded a plane at daybreak, me slightly the worse for wear after an anniversary dinner at a roadside Isaan stall. The places we were to try were all new, completely blank slates; the food, a staggeringly large amount. If there ever was a time for James to decide he couldn’t stand me and try to drown me in the nearest vat of leftover congee, that time would be now.
A hurried dash through the airport, a quick hop on the train and a confused cab ride later, we wandered along Ship Street with luggage in tow, stopping only once (or maybe twice) to ask for directions. Our destination: Bo Innovation, which, like pickled field crabs, or fermented anchovy, seems to inspire strong feelings in all but the un-foodiest of diners. Labelling itself as “X-treme Chinese cuisine”, BI is helmed by chef Alvin Leung Jr., who “does to Chinese food what Picasso did to art” — impressive indeed. It’s also the kind of outrageous claim that drives diners of a certain unpleasant temperament (me) to find nitpicky fault with everything to emerge from the kitchen.
There is no need to be nitpicky here: it is not hard to find fault with the food at Bo Innovation. It’s like Chef Alvin is a “Top Chef” contestant, it’s the Quickfire Challenge, and he whipped up a few dishes that “tell you something about who he is and where he comes from” in 2 hours’ time. A sliver of steak with soy-truffle sauce, predictably yummy save for the addition of “rolled” noodles which add nothing to the dish; “molecular” xiao long bao, or steamed soup dumpling, a spherified jelly that manages to mimic the real thing, but with much less flavor; the pretentiously-named “Dead Garden”, a green savory mousse topped with “soil” and dried enoki mushrooms (is it safe to say we should cool it with the neo-naturalist interpretations of Asian cuisine? They never work). Finally, a a chocolate dessert that James says resembles the Halloween chocolate you find at the back of your closet in April, stale and crumbly; the best thing I can say is that it was not served on a bed of dry ice.
This is the thing about “extreme cuisine”. Except in very rare cases, a lot of it begs the question: Why? Why’d you do it? Only a few chefs are able to answer that question. That’s not to say I hated it; actually, I had a very nice time complaining about stuff. I liked the handmade “lo mein”, part of a dish which mimicked (that again) the flavor and aroma of dried shrimp; the timings were excellent, with hardly any wait between courses; and, coming from a country where the vaunted service often means “smile and run away when someone asks you a question”, the service was smooth and efficient. Needless to say, it is an extremely well-run restaurant, and a fun way to pass the day, once, if you are willing to spend a whole lot of money while passing it.
A place I’d have no problem going to again is just as touristy, but more upfront about it. Da Ping Huo (L/G, Hilltop Plaza, 49 Hollywood Road) is a private kitchen that mixes some pretty tasty Sichuan cooking with an ambiance that veers between “homey” and “down-at-heel” and genuine hospitality from the husband-and-wife team. Despite being completely useless with my chopsticks and splashing my Golden Girls-in-Boca-Raton ensemble with glass noodles, I was charmed by a whole litany of things: the mouth-numbing ma bo tofu, the unctuous stewed “chili beef”, the, er, unusual wall paintings, which resemble what Han Solo and Princess Leia might have had made to commemorate their wedding, and of course, the chef’s opera singing at the end of the evening (what range!).
There are things we didn’t get. A soup of what appeared to be purely lettuce looked like “something out of the Moosewood cookbook,” said James. There was also a duo of steamed pork and taro that resembled something the Pennsylvania Amish might have served up on barn-raising days. But these are small quibbles, and so not that much fun to complain about. It was worth every minute it took to find the place, wandering the streets in high heels and praying to God I don’t fall on my face onto Lord-knows-what smeared onto the sidewalk.
Finally, there is The Chairman, for which we prepared by WORKING OUT IN THE FITNESS ROOM (don’t say we didn’t try our best). This was the only place we didn’t find Japanese executives, or tourists of any kind, really. Perhaps this is why they appeared extremely reluctant to let us through the door. After making a reservation for noon, a server came out to tell us that the restaurant was open at 12:15, blatantly disregarding the sign in front listing the opening time as “12:00”. After planting ourselves in the doorway and refusing to budge until they relented (hey, we were hungry), we were ushered in a few minutes later, and kindly shown a menu from which our server pointed out his recommendations. What he advised: a delicious passel of clams in chili jam, accented with Thai basil and red chili a la hoy pad cha; roasted lamb belly, thick and slightly smoky; deep-fried pork spareribs coated in a sauce James likened to “what you’d find in a pu pu platter”; a soup that “tastes like something you’d eat during a famine”, said James, who was not turning out to be a great fan of Chinese soups. The waiter also relented and allowed us to order a cold Sichuan-style salad of julienned pig’s ear and tripe, paired with slivered Chinese pear, which ended up being underwhelming despite the textural diversity (moral of the story: listen to your waiter!)
I am ashamed to say this was the last big meal we could manage in HK. For dinner that night, after an uncomfortable few hours toddling through a mall and a dyspeptic spell in a movie theater, we settled down at the nearest place we could roll ourselves over to — an Irish pub — and consoled ourselves with salads.
Later that night, I was so hungry, I ate my complimentary fruit plate.