Steamed Garoupa Fillet with Morels
Lung King Heen, Hong Kong
Pleased to let me arrange our entire eating itinerary, my friend Mr. RBI flew all the way from the U.S. just to eat with me during my first three days of my trip to Hong Kong. It was his first time in Asia.
Being a party of two, there was no way we could cover any decent amount of a menu as lengthy as the one at Lung King Heen, or really, any Chinese restaurant. So, the tasting menu – as loathe as I am to admit it – really did make sense for us, especially if it was representative of the menu as it had been two weeks prior to my arrival. It hit all the highlights: shark’s fin soup, abalone, garoupa, etc.
A last minute change in the tasting menu prior to my arrival, however, left me faced with a tasting menu that sounded much more French than Cantonese. A mycophile I might be, I wasn’t flying half-way around to world to eat morels, chanterelles, and porcini at Lung King Heen. The “Mushroom Tasting” wasn’t going to fly.
So I contacted the restaurant and was readily accommodated with a tasting menu assembled from the regular menu. I gave them carte blanche, and they did a decent job. After a couple of rounds of negotiations, we agreed on the following (You can see all of the photos from this meal by clicking HERE, or to see the photos of individual dishes, click on the course titles):
Quail egg, “potato chip,”
sauteed pea shoots, with chile sauce.
Lung King Heen Appetiser Combination (Part 1)
Barbecued Suckling Pig
Barbecued Pork with Honey
Crispy Eel with Honey and Osmanthus.
Lung King Heen Appetiser Combination (Part 2)
Crispy Frog’s Leg flavoured with Spicy Salt
Crispy Scallop with Fresh Pear
Steamed Goose Liver flavoured with Abalone Sauce
Steamed Lobster and Egg White with Black Truffle
Braised Shark’s Fin Soup
With Shredded Chicken in Supreme Chicken Soup.
Steamed Star Garoupa Fillet with Morel Mushrooms
Braised Whole Fresh Abalone
In Supreme Oyster Sauce.
With Dried Chili and Shallots.
Braised Chinese Spinach
With Matsutake Mushrooms.
Braised E-Fu Noodles
With Fresh Crab Meat in Champagne Sauce.
Lung King Heen is located on the fourth floor of the Four Seasons Hotel in Central. Practically on the water, it offers an excellent view of Victoria Harbour.
I had requested and was promised a window table. When we arrived, it wasn’t ready yet. We were offered a table in the second tier and were reassured that we would be moved as soon as our window-side table was vacated. We had absolutely no problem with that arrangement.
I had practically come straight from the airport, stopping only at the hotel for a quick shower and change of clothes. I literally hadn’t eaten or slept for 32 hours, so I was ready for some food. And there was to be a lot of it.
Chinese restaurant menus are extensive by Western standards. With whole sections of the menu dedicated to pork, chicken, beef, various types of seafood (e.g. abalone, shark’s fin, fish, etc.), starches, and vegetables, it’s nearly impossible to expect truly excellent dishes across the board.
Our multi-course dinner cast a wide net over the menu, pulling in everything from the shelled and finned to the snouted and winged.
If our broad sampling was representative of the kitchen’s capabilities as a whole, I’d say that, while Lung King Heen excels at its strengths (the broths and sauces here are extraordinary), most of its fare is simply very good, but not much more. For a restaurant with well over 100 items on its menu, that’s quite impressive.
Three dishes stood out above the others.
The “Braised Shark’s Fin Soup” was not only a jaw-dropping display of extravagance, but one of the most memorable dishes from my entire trip to Hong Kong. We were each given individually heated bowls full of translucent threads of shark’s fin gently simmering in the richest chicken broth I’ve ever tasted.
Words cannot begin to describe the intensity of flavor in that bowl. Laced with tender strands of shredded chicken breast meat, it was like a chicken soup depth charge; as if a thousand chickens had been condensed into this bowl. Full of natural collagen/gelatin, the broth was satiny and thick. I wanted to crawl into the bowl and fall asleep.
Szechuan through and through, the “Wok-Fried Prawns” was more enticing. These giant prawns were coated in a spicy wild chile sauce and stir-fried with shallots, soy sauce, and garlic. Cilantro was tossed in at the last minute, just for a good wilt. Sexy, hearty, and lusty, this was a powerhouse dish. I underestimated this dish from the menu. I don’t regret having left it on for one second.
Our last savory course, the “Braised E-Fu Noodles” was surprisingly Western in form and flavor and incredibly delicious (I’ve usually seen these referred to as “yifu“). Enrobed with a rich, creamy Champagne sauce (I’m not sure what stained the Champagne cream that bright hue of orange – crab coral?), these thin egg noodles commingled with warm lumps of crab meat. The noodles were overcooked by a smidge for my taste (I like a toothier, more elastic texture), the dish was otherwise downright addictive.
Though the noodles were topped with thin hairs of black truffle, the truffle aroma was heavy enough to suggest the addition of white truffle oil. Admittedly, this wasn’t a particularly creative or sophisticated dish, relying a lot on cheap thrills: fat and fake pheromones. It was aimed at the lowest common denominator and it hit the fundamental, human primal craving square in the sweet spot. Had I the stomach (and the heart), I would have downed the plate without batting a lash. Coming as our last course, it was a substantial portion. Thankfully, it hadn’t been served earlier; I know would have eaten it all and labored through the second half of the meal.
Like the rest of our dinner, the smattering of “appetisers” that comprised our first two courses – eight little bites in all – ranged from excellent to so-so.
Given the Cantonese fluency with pork, it’s not surprising that the two pork appetizers were fantastic. One featured a square of suckling pig meat topped with a thin sheet of crisped pork skin. The other consisted of a succulent strip of barbecued pork coated with warm honey.
More unexpected, however, was a masterfully steamed square of foie gras – a luxury item that, to my knowledge, did not enter the Chinese culinary vocabulary until fairly recently – that was topped with orange peel and glazed with oyster sauce. The overall effect was a “foie gras a l’orange.”
Less successful were the two fried items, both of which seemed a bit tired, if not stale. They had clearly been sitting out a bit too long.
Thankfully, both – one a scallop fried with a sliver of pear and topped with slice of Yunan ham and the other a fried frog leg – remained tender and soft within the limp crust. What impressed me the more was the lacy, crisp wafer of dehydrated and fried baby fish that held the frog leg. There must have been hundreds of fish in that wafer: dotted all over, each dot was an eye. That sheet was not only amazing in its production, but entirely wonderful in flavor: an umami bomb of ocean and brine.
Highly prized in Hong Kong’s top restaurants, star garoupa is served to the exclusion of any other fish. Overall, our “Steamed Star Garoupa Fillet” course was technically flawless. The fish’s milky white meat was firm, yet gelatinous and smooth.
But the fish seemed like an afterthought, or an accessory at best, to the sauce, which was magnificent. Rolled around morels and asparagus into tight, tubular bundles, these steamed garoupa roulades were served with a rich, gelatinous consommé made from stewing and reducing chicken bones, ham, and pork bones. I thought the consommé outwitted the fish. The sauce was complex, yet had tremendous clarity of flavor – you could taste each: the pork, the ham, and chicken.
The wine pairing with the fish was very good, picking up the chicken flavor in the supreme sauce very well. It was the only pairing that night that made any impression on me.
The “Braised Whole Fresh Abalone,” which commanded a HK$250 supplement apiece, was tender, yet meaty, reaffirming my belief that the Chinese are the only ones who have mastered the technique of cooking this prized mollusk. Sided by a fleshy Chinese black mushroom cap that mimicked the abalone in color, shape, flavor, and texture, the coupling was an ingenious inside-pass on a surf-and-turf. This multi-layered food pun was Chinese culinary artistry at its finest.
To the Western diner, desserts here might seem like an afterthought. They’re good. But I’m not sure that they’re any better than any one of a few dozen other restaurants at or even near Lung King Heen’s level in Hong Kong.
Our tasting menu came with “Chilled Mango with Sago Cream and Pomelo,” the chocolate cake of Hong Kong restaurants. Every restaurant has it on their menu. And every one claims that theirs is a house specialty, something which I find utterly absurd.
As I am allergic to mangoes (an allergy I first developed while living in Hong Kong over a decade ago), I tried only a small spoonful. Speckled with bits of pomelo and tapoica, the soup was refreshing, the mango pudding’s calling card.
I preferred my “Sweetened Almond Cream with Egg Whites,” a hot and fragrant strained almond milk soup with large pieces of egg whites. Reminiscent of warm soybean soup with jiu niang and egg, it was rich and comforting.
One would be mistaken to think they could get an authentic Cantonese experience here.
Instead, what you will get at Lung King Heen is a truly authentic haute Cantonese meal.
And in this regard, the restaurant clumsily negotiates the line between East and West.
I can’t fault the restaurant for serving our meal in a Western-style, coursed progression; that was an inherent byproduct to the tasting menu format. We were each given our own individual portions in a paced succession. And even though it seemed anathema to Chinese gastronomic sensibilities to serve a vegetable course (a bowl of velvety “Braised Chinese Spinach” served with tender matsutake mushrooms) by itself instead of with various other dishes, this successive plating worked out quite well.
But it was clear, for example, that the Cantonese may not have mastered (or fail to understand?) the concept of the amuse bouche. Not entirely one bite, or even three bites, ours, involving a quail egg, a potato “crisp,” and a hillock of water spinach, was served with chopsticks even though it was probably more appropriately taken with a combination of fork, knife, and finger. The flavors weren’t bad. But I failed to understand the purpose of this dish other than the fact that it filled the seemingly obligatory role as an introduction to the haute dining experience. The only take-away I got was the “potato chip,” which I suspect was actually potato flour mixed with tapioca flour and made into something akin to a prawn cracker.
And despite the fact that I loved the osmanthus jellies (less so the sesame biscuits) served as petits fours at the end of the meal, they were oversized and awkwardly presented without utensils. The slippery suckers threatened to shoot right out from between your fingers.
A couple of nitpicks alone wouldn’t make me think so. But there were enough minor dents in my experience to make me think that Lung King Heen’s status as a Michelin three-starred restaurant – the only Chinese 3-star in the world – is questionable.
Sure, it’s got all of the trim and trappings of a Michelin three-starred restaurant, even if most if its patrons looked like they just walked in from a day of sightseeing (there is clearly no dress code here). And the price point is squarely situated at the higher end, though I didn’t think that my half of the tab (HK$1,620 for food) was unreasonable, given the luxury items we had.
But service was unforgivably sloppy by Western standards (well, Michelin’s to be more precise), though perhaps not necessarily so by local standards. Dishes seemed to be cleared at the convenience of the staff rather than as a matter of course. And utensils seemed habitually missing. (I admit, this might be due to the fact that the staff isn’t used to having to clear and send out new forks and knives at each course for most of their guests. Mr. RBI hadn’t yet mastered the chopsticks.)
I’m not convinced that the wine program here is as strong as Michelin two and three-stars (heck, even one stars) elsewhere. The designated sommelier didn’t seem nearly as polished or knowledgeable as the the sommelier at Man Wah, though I’ll be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt due to a language barrier (he didn’t speak enough Mandarin or English and I didn’t speak enough Cantonese to thoroughly express ourselves). And his service was anything but exact. Pours came in the general neighborhood of when its matching course was served – sometimes a little before, sometimes a little after.
Even more problematic – the food can be imprecise, like those soggy fried beginners and the overcooked noodles.
Lung King Heen occupies quite a large tract of the hotel’s real estate. The interior is refreshingly modern with few stylized, “Oriental” embellishments. It looks like a high-end hotel eatery.
We sat in the main dining room. There is a smaller dining room nearer to the entrance. I’m not sure whether or not that is the “smoking room.” The clientele on this Saturday night seemed to be a fair mix of special occasion dinners, with perhaps a larger number of tourists (both Chinese and non-Chinese) making up the difference.
Would I return?
Ideally, I’d like the opportunity to work my way through a good part of Executive Chef Chan Yan Tak’s menu, especially his midday dim sum fare, which seems to get universal praise. And I’d return in a heart beat for that shark’s fin soup and the e fu noodles. Those were spectacular.
Lung King Heen
Executive Chef Chan Yan Tak
8 Finance Street
Central, Hong Kong