I got together for lunch with a publicist friend of mine who represents Cathay Pacific, pretty much a favorite airline of travelers everywhere. We were talking about doing a promotion on tablehopper for their new premium economy class, when she leaned over the table and asked me, “Marcia, have you been to Hong Kong?” My answer, “Not yet,” although it had been on my heart’s desire list for too long, right up there with Tokyo, Bangkok, and Buenos Aires.
After a couple of meetings, I was invited by the Hong Kong Tourism Board to come visit (NO WAY!), and we ended up crafting the ultimate in dream itineraries. I couldn’t believe it, I was finally going to the land of chashu pork buns and roast goose and dan tat (egg custard tarts). (I also stayed on for a few extra days on my own, as I usually do when I go on a press trip somewhere.)
Flying Cathay Pacific will kind of ruin you for most other airlines. They just finished updating their SFO lounge, where you can start your day with noodle and wonton soup, refresh with a shower in the marble stalls if you’re on a long trip, and lounge in cushy chairs while reading Time Out Hong Kong and sipping on an iced coffee, which is what I did.
After priority boarding, the most gracious flight attendants will take good care of you (they could give the world lessons on manners), and I couldn’t believe how much room I had—the new premium economy made the business class of some other airlines look shabby in comparison. They stuffed us with lunch after takeoff, and then dinner too. Why thank you. And now it’s time for a nap (my seat reclined with a leg rest, so civilized).
I thought I understood hospitality, but it wasn’t until I arrived at Hong Kong’s Upper House in the evening, my mouth still agape from the psychedelic sky-high skyscraper light show as my driver took me to Pacific Place (where Upper House is located). Outside, a small group of people were waiting and descended on our car like a scene out of a movie, escorting me up the escalator and whisking my bags into the most chic, sleek, glamorous hotel room, one that felt like a penthouse apartment, with its wraparound views of Victoria Harbour and the dense, tropical hills behind me. I felt like I needed to invite Halston and Calvin Klein over for a cocktail party, it had such a louche, retro luxe but timeless style.
My welcome team checked me in while in my Upper Suite (70, Island View), brought a glass of Champagne to go with the cheese plate they already had in my room, and proceeded to blow my mind further with the most thoughtful amenities, from a leather luggage tag and bag to a dim sum guidebook. Looking out the windows, taking this all in, I remember thinking, “It’s too much. Is this my life? How did I get this lucky?” I don’t have answers. But I do know I was overwhelmed with this unique abundance of generosity, luxury, and kindness.
I was giddy and needed to wind down and try to get some sleep. Time for Champagne in the tub! The enormous bathroom had the most glorious soaking tub, big enough for two, with a staggering view. (I couldn’t bear to descend the shades, so someone may have seen a full moon that night, heh.) I loved all the soft and serene lighting in the studio—it felt like such an oasis of calm.
Waking up in that glorious bed and opening all the automatic shades to that captivating view was quite a way to start the day—truly breathtaking. Again, I felt like I was in a movie. And every time I returned to my room, I found a new handwritten note from the team, asking if I was enjoying my stay (plus a bunch of sweet emails after I left). The level of warmth and personability here felt like a boutique hotel—actually, like a B&B—but pure luxury.
Upper House is quite beautiful—it opened in 2009 and was designed by André Fu and features contemporary art and sculptures throughout. The 117 rooms are perched on the upper floors of the building—from 38 to 49, hence the name—and there’s the swanky Café Gray Bar (go for cocktails in the evening) and Deluxe restaurant on the 49th floor (the Gray is chef Gray Kunz). Start your day there with the Upper East breakfast (it would be a great spot for a biz breakfast), complete with corn and crab congee, turnip cake, fried egg noodles, and a medley of dim sum, like har gow and a steamed chashu pork bun. They noticed how much I enjoyed the sweet and sour chile paste, and before I left, provided me with a recipe and small jar from the chef. #flabbergasted
You can look at my photo album of the entire trip here.
In general, the kindness and manners of people in Hong Kong is notable. I remember taking a picture of the exterior of the Tai Cheong bakery, and people stopped walking so I could take the pic. What? In a city of more than 7 million people, one of the most dense metropolises in the world, that is quite amazing. I also noticed how quiet drivers were. Didn’t hear a single honk out of my many cabdrivers, even in the most harrowing of traffic jams.
I have been on many subways around the world, and the MTR in HK was not only easy to navigate and spotless, but everyone was so polite and conscious of personal space. And I encountered the general kindness of strangers daily, from shared smiles with cooks in steamy kitchens to the grandma helping me pick out yao tiew (Chinese doughnut) for my congee.
There is a lot to take in and I walked a ton (gotta burn off those dumplings)—fortunately the mild weather in January was perfection. I can’t imagine the heat and intense humidity in the summer, I know I would be writing a very different piece!
You have to explore both sides of Hong Kong—Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon side. I’m so glad I stayed on both sides. You can’t miss the evening light show and view of the Hong Kong skyline, which you can only witness from the Kowloon side. You can easily take a cab (when you need to go to the other side, you have to make a rolling gesture with your arm like a snake in order to hail one), grab a boat (definitely do this, it’s scenic and so cheap), and there’s that subway (the MTR—which also has a great airport express line, FYI).
I was fortunate to explore the high end and the day to day in HK, here were some favorite places to eat:
Yan Toh Heen
The most elegant dim sum I encountered, with a gorgeous dining room to match (which was recently remodeled in 2013), was at the two-Michelin-star Yan Toh Heen at the InterContinental (on the Kowloon side). The place is tricked out in more jade than you’d imagine, from the panels at the entrance all the way to your place setting, with a jade-handled spoon and chopstick rest. (I couldn’t stop staring at everything and pivoting my head around like an owl.)
Chef Lau Yiu Fai’s dim sum was so refined, delicate, and utterly delicious, from a gossamer-thin steamed seafood dumpling in soup with king crab and bamboo pith, to wok-fried minced pigeon prepared tableside, served with caviar and lettuce cups. I went crazy for their XO sauce. Dishes are inventive too—how about crispy pork, duck liver, burrata, and dried shrimp with preserved vegetables dim sum? (And chef has been with the hotel since 1980 and obviously has not lost inspiration.)
Dessert is a showstopper, with basil dragon pearl with ginger ice cream and a tower of fresh fruit tucked into shaved ice. Extraordinary. You can also experience the delicacy bird’s nest on top of their dan tat. Quality wines, and plenty of special dishes you can request ahead of time if you really want to splash out (their Peking duck is a signature).
My other favorite dining room was at Man Wah on the 25th floor at the glam Mandarin Oriental. The room is breathtaking, with an undulating ceiling of black lacquered enamel with gold accents, vintage gold lamps that look like birdcages with tassels hanging underneath, and the kicker, tablecloths and painted sections of the ceiling that were a rosy, Pepto pink. Drama! It’s glorious. I was ready to move in. The room harks back to an older elegance, and the view out the framed windows is truly stunning.
Chef Chi-Kwong Hung’s menu is abundant. It’s a swanky place for lunch, and you can taste classic dim sum like well-executed siu mai, a delicate beef tenderloin puff with black pepper sauce, and crabmeat with green pea, charmingly served in the shape of a pea pod. A restorative soup with sea conch, lily bulb, longan, and lotus seed was unlike anything I’ve had before, and probably one of the sexiest dishes of my life was the stir-fried lobster with silky egg white, scallop mousse, and caviar, with gold leaf on top that picked up the shimmer of the lanterns.
Chinese barbecue, take your pick. But then there’s the black Iberian pork, which was as flavorful as it was pretty (the tang from the chin kiang vinegar and pear kept it from feeling too cloying), and I hope to have their glutinous fried rice with preserved Chinese sausage (lap cheong) again in my life—each grain had such perfect wok fire. Somehow, find room for some traditional Cantonese desserts, like almond cream with sesame dumpling, and red bean cream with lotus seed, tangerine peel, and sesame dumpling.
Lung King Heen
You’ll need a reservation in advance for this high-end spot at the Four Seasons, which has three Michelin stars (executive chef Chan Yan Tak was the first Chinese chef to earn three). You’ll have access to some amazing wines (the somm poured us an impressive Chinese wine!), and the baked abalone puff with diced chicken will blow your mind—ditto the baked chicken “casserole” with black truffle, which was so juicy. The fried puntalette (orzo) with minced beef in XO chile sauce was another fave. While I found the details to be more attended to at Yan Toh Heen (example: some of the dishes here had drops on the side and weren’t wiped down), it was still a memorable lunch.
Tim Ho Wan
You absolutely have to head over to the Kowloon side for dim sum at this extraordinary place in Sham Shui Po. Chef Mak Kwai Pui (such a kind, gracious, talented man) makes the best barbecue pork bun I’ve ever had—trust, you need this benchmark in your life—you will have never experienced such flavor and texture.
Also of note: the cheung fen (rice noodle/vermicelli roll) filled with your choice of meat (including pig’s liver); the steamed egg cake; pan-fried turnip cake; egg roll with shrimp and egg white; steamed dumplings (try the Chiu Chow style); and an extra order of the char siu bao. It’s packed, popular, and casual—with a team running around in lime green polo shirts—but also has a Michelin star; one bite of the made-to-order dumplings and it becomes abundantly clear why. Tim Ho Wan now has locations all over, like Taiwan and Singapore—fingers crossed chef Mak comes to SF at some point. I tried my best to convince him.
Din Tai Fung
I was not going to let the opportunity to have Din Tai Fung’s xiao long bao in my life slip by, oh hell no. There’s a spacious location in the Silvercord shopping mall (Tsim Sha Tsui), and the line moves pretty quickly, don’t feel daunted. While the XLB were quite superlative (oh so many delicate folds in the silky wrapper, like 18!), I was disappointed they weren’t piping hot, so eat them immediately (and the little cloth they are served on so they don’t stick was quite ingenious). The steamed vegetable and pork bun gave me the hit of greens I was craving, and the pan-fried shrimp and pork dumplings came with a crisp layer you tap through like the lid on a good crème brûlée.
When I couldn’t get a reservation for The Chairman, this was a recommendation from a local, who told me Celebrity is known for its traditional Cantonese dishes (chef Cheng Kam Fu has earned a couple of Michelin stars since opening in 2010). It’s hidden away above the street in the Lan Kwai Fong Hotel, and the décor felt very ’80s, with purple walls, oddly large chairs that looked like they belonged at a card table in a bonus room in a Palm Springs mansion circa 1982, and just two small dining rooms.
The must-order dish—the expertly fried chicken wing stuffed with bird’s nest—totally got our attention (you can see how it’s made here), followed by a delicate steamed crab claw in egg white and some really tasty sweet and sour pork (I was told to order it, and I’m glad I did!). A few other dishes we tried were good but not memorable. It was a quirky excursion, with some good moments, but not necessarily one I’d return for.
I’m so glad that one of my last meals in HK was at the chef counter at Bo Innovation. I have met chef Alvin Leung (aka The Demon Chef) on his many visits to San Francisco, and remember the first time I tried his playful and molecular take on xiao long bao at an event here. I was fortunate to catch him while he was in town (the guy has a busy schedule—he’s opening R&D in Toronto and is a judge on MasterChef Canada).
The tasting menu features a spin on many famous Hong Kong dishes and ingredients, and after a week of eating through the city, I was able to understand many of the references. It was a very satisfying way to wrap up the week!
Leung has created his own style of cuisine, which he calls X-treme Chinese. You’ll see plenty of technique and molecular tricks and a lot of humor too (plus one shocker dish he’s famous for). It’s a totally interactive meal, and I thoroughly enjoyed all the different dishes, bowls, and vessels he has created for each course. There were some fantastic dishes—especially the brilliant Sichuan hollandaise in a lobster dumpling dish with xiaoshing chile consommé—and I ended up learning about so many Chinese ingredients too.
There were some spot-on wine pairings, and the staff was engaging. I got a kick out of the two wealthy tai-tais dining at my left at the counter—we talked about food the whole night. Leave it to the lady with the big rocks on her hand to send me to the most awesome little congee spot (Chung Kee Congee, 275-285 Hennessy Rd.) in Wanchai—way to keep it real, HK.
Hong Kong Foodie Tours
One of my favorite activities on this trip was the food tour I took of Sham Shui Po with Hong Kong Foodie Tours. I learned so much about this fascinating neighborhood and tried new dishes I would have had a hard time discovering on my own, even after years of living in HK. The balance of food, culture, and architecture facts was awesome. I liked the focus on small places and touring a wet market in Kowloon was so cool. Also was happy to be brought to a kitchen shop (Leung Tim Choppers Factory) where I was able to score a couple of cleavers to bring home. I’ll come back to HK and take their other tours for sure.
Kau Kee Noodle (21 Gough St. in Central)
At some point you have to get your heinie over to this noodle institution (90 years and counting) and try their beef brisket noodles. Their beef curry is also amazing. It’s a tiny, popular spot—we had good luck scoring a table by coming by at the end of the night (around 9:30pm).
There are a few locations, both Central and the Kowloon side, and Mak’s is known for its wonton noodle soup.
Shia Wong Hip (170 Apliu St., Sham Shui Po)
And just in case you want to eat some snake, because, Hong Kong, I thought the fried version I had with black bean and garlic was pretty tasty at this old-school spot.
Tai Cheong Bakery (G/F, Lyndhurst Building, 35 Lyndhurst Terrace)
Is it wrong that I didn’t loooooove the dan tat at this institution? I think all the amazing pasteis I was eating in Lisbon a couple of months earlier ruined me, but I was happy to discover that our dear Golden Gate Bakery really is that good.
Street Food in Wanchai
Walk around at night and eat all the things (including fish balls and cuttlefish in spicy curry sauce).
Hip, Fun, Non-Cantonese Spots
This yakitori-heavy izakaya in Sheung Wan from Matt Abergel and Lindsay Jang is a must-visit for anyone who adores chicken—Abergel does amazing things with the bird, absolutely don’t miss the succulent neck with yuzu kosho and the tsukune/meatball. Other hits on the menu: the KFC (Korean fried cauliflower), corn tempura, and chicken and egg rice.
Check out their house label junmai nigori (the family who makes it has been doing so for 400 years), and the dangerously delicious shochu they infuse with Stumptown coffee and serve shaken—it will get you loaded if you don’t watch it. I speak from experience.
The vibe is fun and lively, with soul pumping on the sound system and an expat crowd putting back cocktails while snacking on pan-seared Korean rice cakes with furikake. The bar is where to be, but the place doesn’t take reservations, so take what you can get. Also groundbreaking here: they don’t charge a service charge like everywhere else, so be sure to tip.
Two other spots from this group: Ronin, a counter-only Japanese restaurant in SOHO (book a reservation), and Sunday’s Grocery, where you can score some sick takeout sandwiches (like a chicken schnitzel or katsu) to fix your Yardbird hangover.
Ho Lee Fook
The name alone should let you know you’re in for some fun, but Taiwan-native chef Jowett Yu has some serious chops (he’s well known in Sydney for Mr. Wong, Ms. G’s, and working at the renowned Tetsuya). The menu here isn’t strictly Cantonese, far from it—you’ll see all kinds of dishes, let’s just call it freestyle Asian. The steak tartare is the spin on tartare I have long been looking for, with mint, Thai basil, fish sauce, bird’s eye chiles, and fried shallots (it reminded me of the sliced raw beef salad at Yummy Yummy). A love child of shrimp toast and okonomiyaki is pure evil, loaded with cabbage, bonito, and Kewpie mayo, ditto the well-made Mom’s “mostly cabbage, a little bit of pork” dumplings.
I hope you’re with a group, because I don’t want you to have to choose between the meaty Kurobuta pork char siu (all juicy and lacquered and sticky) and the roast Wagyu short ribs—so succulent inside with crispy edges, thanks, deep fryer—that you drag through a jalapeño purée, and the accompanying bites of a kicky green onion salad dressed with green shallot kimchi. Whoa. HO LEE FOOK. Cocktails are refreshing, and even though I didn’t grow up on Horlicks, the Breakfast 2.0 dessert is a winner, but the mandarin granita was what I really needed at the end of this tour de force of mad flavor.
Superfun design here (G.O.D. is behind it), with mah-jongg tiles covering the wall in front of the open kitchen, the wall of waving good luck kitties as you descend to the clubby dining room downstairs, with backlit artwork on the wall. It’s part of the Black Sheep Restaurants group, which includes Boqueria, Motorino, La Vache!, Chôm Chôm, Carbone, Le Garcon Saigon, and Burger Circus.
Speaking of Chôm Chôm, it’s a fun spot to come by for a beer and some well-executed Vietnamese street food. Don’t miss their banh mi, only served 4pm-6:30pm.
This one-of-a-kind place on Hollywood Road in Sheung Wan is a French restaurant, Blade Runner-esque bar (just wait until the sliding door opens), and contemporary art gallery all in one (we’re talking Jean‑Michel Basquiat, Vhils, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and Damien Hirst). Chef Mutaro Balde offers a contemporary French menu—there’s a prix-fixe for lunch and a larger menu for dinner. Excellent wines to choose from—I had never seen the silver chalice they poured my Champagne into before (it’s by Puiforcat—it had little cuts inside to enhance the distribution of the bubbles more, and stayed nice and cold).
The food was pleasant enough, and lunch was extremely reasonable, but personally, I wouldn’t come here to dine unless I lived in HK—as a visitor, I’m looking for more unique and Cantonese experiences. Then again, if you are into art or restaurant design, you really have to see it. At least come by for a drink (FYI, Man Mo Temple is just across the street, another must-see).
Five places on my long list for next time
-Yat Lok for roast goose and lai fun noodles
-High tea at The Peninsula
-Fook Lam Moon for dim sum
-Mong Kok night market
I had some of my favorite cocktails at this hipster spot on Hollywood Road, and the crew working there were fun and talented.
The experience of finding this speakeasy at night, the entrance hidden away in a wet market, was a total adventure. Beautiful space, but the cocktails weren’t very balanced. I’d still go back and order something simple because the space was really that cool. (Search online for clues about the address!)
You have to go to at least one, the vertigo alone is unlike anything else! One spot I went to was WooLooMooLoo—nothing like having a whiskey on an open roof when you’re 31 floors up!
More Fab Hotels I Stayed At
It was such a special opportunity to stay at this renowned international hotel’s flagship property, The Mandarin, which opened in Hong Kong in 1963. There is an old-world luxury that permeates this Central property, which has 430 rooms and some tremendous views. I stayed in a Harbour Room, with a view of Victoria Harbour and the Hong Kong Observation Wheel.
I definitely felt like I was in Hong Kong, with the rich colors and fabrics in the room, the sexy bathroom, and they even give you a choice of two different bathrobes: purple Asian silky or classic cotton terry. The bed, sheets, and pillows were downright dreamy (plus the best blackout curtains!), and every night you come home to some little surprise, like a lavender spray to help you sleep. You feel quite pampered, and that’s before you experience their spa!
Many details are about guest comfort here, like the delivery pass-through chamber they put things in (such as your morning paper) so they don’t disturb you. I was infinitely charmed to find housekeeping had wrapped up my iPhone charger cord into a perfect little bundle. The property is packed with dining options, from Man Wah (mentioned above) to their famous cake shop M Bar and The Chinnery, a British lounge.
InterContinental Hong Kong
I was happy to spend my last four nights on the Kowloon side, because nothing can beat the views of Victoria Harbour and the Hong Kong skyline from this 503-room hotel, which is located right on the waterfront. I can only imagine what it’s like for Chinese New Year!
My room was comfortable (dug the pink Italian marble in the bathroom), but after the understated elegance of the Mandarin Oriental and Upper House, I thought the room was also a bit too cluttered with paperwork and marketing offers (it definitely feels more corporate). The hotel staff was delightful, from the white-gloved bellhops to the amazingly informative staff at the concierge desk—I scored some excellent Kowloon food tips (there is a lot to see and eat nearby!).
Everywhere you go in the hotel, you’ll see sweeping views (they even had a fêng shui master consult on the hotel design before it opened in 1980). They’re famous for their Presidential Suite, the largest in Hong Kong (7,000 square feet), which costs almost $13,000 a night (whoa)—I got a tour and was blown away with the view, just beyond.
But it was really lunch at Yah Toh Heen (mentioned above) that captivated me the most, what a special experience. There are other dining options, including Spoon by Alain Ducasse and some serious breakfast and lunch buffet action at Harbourside (Hong Kong is big on the Sunday buffets). Be sure to enquire about their “In the Know” classes: you can learn about everything from how to make dim sum to food and market tours to tips about buying pearls and jade. I got a tour of the spa and outdoor swimming pool, which looked pretty marvelous. Again, that view!
A Few Things Not to Miss:
A Symphony of Lights (nightly!)
Victoria Peak a great place to start your trip and take in the tremendous views—you’ll ride a tram to the top. Be sure to go for a walk on Lugard Road—it’s very scenic, and a good place to cool off and get some fresh air.
Hong Kong Observation Wheel
A tremendous Ferris wheel, with 42 enclosed gondolas (there’s a VIP one with a crystal floor too). I’d recommend hitting this up at night so you can take in all the lights!
Man Mo Temple
Be sure to visit this extraordinary temple, rich with incense, for worshiping the god of literature and god of warriors.
Even if you don’t take a food tour, make time to wander the many wet markets—you’ll find some in Wanchai, and there’s a chef’s market on Lyndhurst Terrace near the bottom of the escalator.
Tea at LockCha
Sunday evenings at the LockCha teahouse (in Hong Kong Park) are totally restorative, with beautiful music (every Sunday for the past 14 years!), exquisite tea (more than 100 kinds), and 12-15 kinds of vegetarian dim sum. I was so lucky to have a personal tea session with Mr. Ip Wing-chi, and learned his shop was the first to offer single-day harvested teas. He also showed me the correct way to wash your tea and hold your cup. Read more about this fascinating man (and tea) here. (Next time, after my tea, I will visit Yi Xin, a classic Cantonese restaurant he recommended that is within walking distance.)
I found the experience to be a bit chaotic and stressful (everyone is barking for you to come to their stand, and then you have to haggle haggle haggle), but my publicist pal at the InterContinental recommends stall #148—her friend Alice runs it, and reportedly has nice things.
Elegant Tang (Li Yuen Street East)
This was the best place to pick up inexpensive gifts for everyone, from silky shoe bags to coin purses. Thanks again to Carole at InterContinental for this awesome tip! (You can wander down Li Yuen West for more shopping…)
I ended up bringing home many different kinds of XO sauce (from Mandarin Oriental, Upper House, Yan Toh Heen, and, of course, The Peninsula, where it was invented)—these would make awesome gifts as well!
Think about getting a foot massage on arrival and before heading home—you’ll see crazy cheap massage places all over the place (especially on Nathan Road).
Flying home on business class on Cathay Pacific was definitely the pièce de résistance—not only do they have some of the best airport lounges, but the dim sum breakfast I had on my flight was tops. Such notable quality of food, again.
You can sleep comfortably, fully flat, with a comforter and plenty of room for side sleepers. And let me tell you, watching The Big Lebowski while drinking a White Russian before bedtime is the way to do it. I woke up for arrival in SFO feeling fantastic, and like one lucky lady.
I’d like to give a particular thank-you to Rainbow Wong (her real, fabulous name!), my delightful tour guide assigned by the Hong Kong Tourism Board, who made my trip so extra special—what a lovely person to explore Hong Kong with! She taught me so much about the culture, the people, and of course the food. M’goi!!
And tremendous thanks and gratitude to Cathay Pacific and Hong Kong Tourism Board for this trip of a lifetime. I will remember it always, and I hope it inspires many of you, dear readers, to discover Hong Kong!
You can look at my photo album of the entire trip here.