There is no definition of what makes a restaurant a destination in itself. Though the Michelin Guide equates the greatest restaurants to “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”. There are times in the best meals where I lose the words to describe what I’m tasting, and feeling. Could this happen in Hong Kong and could it happen in a Cantonese restaurant?
I would like to say that I’m worldly and know by heart the best restaurants across the globe. After New York I know a handful in destinations like Paris, San Sebastian and London, and after that just the top couple in a few places in the US and Europe. I had never heard of Lung King Keen even though friends had been there, but I knew they had been to a three Michelin star restaurant in Hong Kong. Hence the importance of Michelin’s guides, and the World’s Best Restaurant awards, but inherently difficult ability to discover the greatest for yourself. It seems that is only maybe possible in your home town.
I know from this experience that there are differences in what is considered exceptional in Hong Kong, to what is exceptional in the other dining destinations I’ve mentioned. It is refreshing that this is the case. We are not in France, so it is pleasing to find Michelin are not judging in comparison to French restaurants. With such different cuisine what would be the point of direct comparison? After all, a lot of the food in China is based on recipes that have evolved over a longer period than many French classics.
On to Lung King Heen and the welcome is warm and friendly, though without any air of importance and pomp. The room is loud in a colour sense; artistic almost; though projecting more about the decadent Four Seasons hotel the restaurant is housed in, rather than providing an entree into an exquisite Chinese meal. I guess in most senses it is like no other Chinese restaurant I’ve been to in almost every single way. The service was nice, not that noticeable (in a good way), attentive enough, experienced enough, but of the several floorstaff I cannot remember a flash of charisma. The reason I mention all of this to begin with is to put it aside, because in my mind, I came for the cuisine, and the cuisine is what stands out in my memory like the slow motion finish of a race.
My favourite dish on the Chef’s Tasting Menu (HK$1,750) was refreshed several times, which is the sign of a great meal. In theatrical terms, there were many highlights in the script of this Oscar nominated movie, leading to a fascinating climax, and a short, reasonably satisfying ending. The climax was the “wok-fried superior Australian wagyu beef cubes with sarcodon aspratus and capsicum”. Now, I do realise that I just mentioned my favourite dish contained Australian wagyu beef, but this is absolutely in no way a patriotic or emotionally subjective inkling. Actually, the star of this dish was difficult to distinguish between amazingly flavoursome, complicated mushrooms (sarcodon aspratus), and beef that you eat in wonder at how it hasn’t melted into the bowl. There is technique used here that only the chefs and more experienced Cantonese diners could describe, but the end result is astonishing.
The next most amazing scene was the simmered king prawn in fermented black bean sauce. Besides the staggering size of the prawn, and the perfection in its just touched cooking, the delicate black bean sauce was a genius combination with what is, in the end, a sweet and subtle seafood. Keeping the gripping plot going was always going to be difficult, but the braised abalone cube with star garoupa fillet in supreme oyster sauce, amplified the light touch, but tightrope balance of executive chef Chan Yan Tak. It was fascinating that the abalone alone was very nice, and similarly the star garoupa on its own, but in combination they were outstanding.
There was quite a diverse reaction to the second course of braised vegetable soup with lobster wanton and shredded chicken. The soup was glutinous and flavoursome. The star, lobster wanton, was amazing, but all too short lived. My preference would have been to have a single large spoon of the wanton with the broth for one divine mouthful. Prior to that we had the combination of appetisers that used that same suggestion. One divine mouthful of roast goose with plum sauce, another of crispy sucking pork, and another of barbecued pork with honey. All amazing, but showing that if you copy classics you can only elevate them so far, but if you create new dishes like the others on this menu, you can really make an outstanding statement.
However, the dessert went a little too far for my tastes, and the rest of the table. This was the time where, after one outstanding dish after another, our minds turned to the sweet side of things. The ginger soup was delicious, but not sweet. In fact, with a little sweet potato in each bite, it was bordering savoury. The glutinous rice dumplings, in themselves, were fantastic. I know that Chinese desserts are often not overly sweet, and the rice dumplings were a good expression of this cultural fact. Though, like the wanton, were not numerous enough to actually make an impactful statement on the dish. The Chinese petit fours with the chrysanthemum flowers and wolfberries in jelly are a classical dessert and were a nice way to end.
I can see how Lung King Heen has been awarded so many accolades. It is the most creative Chinese cooking I’ve tried, and there were several incredible dishes, without any misses, albeit the dessert was not to my taste. Recounting on this experience, and having reflected more on it than most, leads me to believe it is near impossible to objectively compare it to most others in the same type of quality. What I can say is that there is a lot to like about the Western fine dining impact on this restaurant, and there is a lot to like about the flavours, combination and balance of the dishes I tried. The ingenuity is delicious and I hope chef Chan Yan-tak continues with it for many years to come.