HONG KONG FOR ONE

Fly­ing solo on your next trip to Hong Kong? A thriv­ing tra­di­tion of ta­ble-shar­ing makes the city a haven for lone rangers, as CANDICE CHUNG at­tests.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - Contents -

Fly­ing solo on your next trip to Hong Kong? A tra­di­tion of ta­ble-shar­ing makes the city a haven for lone rangers.

Din­ing in Hong Kong is a pic­ture of sec­u­lar com­mu­nion. In cramped bar­be­cue restau­rants and noo­dle houses, friends and fam­i­lies gather reg­u­larly for noisy con­ver­sa­tion over plates of crisp-skinned roast meats, braised brisket and bowls of won­tons.

In one of the most densely pop­u­lated and ex­pen­sive cities in the world, the prac­tice of ta­ble­shar­ing is so com­mon it has a name, daap toi, and it’s this thriv­ing com­mu­nal-din­ing cul­ture that makes Hong Kong a solo trav­eller’s haven. A diner hav­ing a soli­tary meal might be drawn into a fam­ily lunch with three gen­er­a­tions, say, or a com­pan­ion­able din­ner with an oc­to­ge­nar­ian who shares a pas­sion for roast duck. In the right com­pany, it’s a pleas­ant to­gether-sep­a­rate­ness that beats a ta­ble for one.

But first, some daap toi eti­quette. Most shared-ta­ble ac­tion hap­pens at bud­get eater­ies, where ser­vice is re­li­ably grumpy and own­ers are un­der pres­sure to turn over ta­bles swiftly. “Get in, get out” is the im­plicit un­der­stand­ing. Din­ers who linger too long in pop­u­lar restau­rants such as Yat Lok in Cen­tral are likely to find them­selves un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously ush­ered out by a wait­ress.

Some of the city’s most ac­claimed restau­rants are also the most af­ford­able, which means a din­ing com­pan­ion isn’t re­quired to help de­fray the cost of or­der­ing across the menu. Won­ton noo­dles at Mak’s Noo­dle and Kau Kee’s beef brisket, for in­stance, draw long queues and cost less than an av­er­age food-court meal. For a bud­get Miche­lin crawl, start the night with a cock­tail at Belon, then head to a strip of low-key din­ers on Welling­ton Street bear­ing red Miche­lin stick­ers. Stop by Yat Lok for the best roast goose in town, Tsim Chai Kee for fish balls and won­tons, and for dessert, take the MTR to nearby Cause­way Bay for a bowl of silky steamed milk pud­ding, called dun nai, at Yee Shun Dairy Com­pany.

For more re­fined but still un­pre­ten­tious fare, a grow­ing num­ber of restau­rants of­fer im­pres­sive counter din­ing. Yak­i­tori bar Yard­bird is beloved for its grilled dishes and an all-Ja­panese beer and liquor list, as is its seafood spin-off, Ronin. There’s a FrenchChi­nese tast­ing menu at VEA, a slick 25-seat counter run by Vicky Cheng, who claimed a Miche­lin star be­fore the restau­rant’s first birth­day this year.

French toast and Hong Kong-style milk tea in a cha chaan teng, the ubiq­ui­tous Can­tonese cafés that are seem­ingly im­per­vi­ous to fash­ion, is an es­sen­tial Hong Kong ex­pe­ri­ence. Most cha chaan tengs also of­fer cheap, all-day set menus fea­tur­ing their most pop­u­lar dishes, a sound al­ter­na­tive for those who have de­ci­sion-fa­tigue. Take af­ter­noon tea at Lan Fong Yuen in Cen­tral, or in the 1950s wooden booths at the at­mo­spheric Mido in Yau Ma Tei.

From booth to bar stool and shared ta­ble, solo din­ers are well served in Hong Kong.

MAK’S NOO­DLE

Though the Mak fam­ily’s re­cently ren­o­vated noo­dle house has a mod­ern Chi­nese gloss, the restau­rant was founded in the late 1960s as an open-air food stall in Cen­tral by Mak King Hung (nick­named Mak Ngan, or “skinny Mak”), whose fa­ther, Mak Woon Chi, brought his won­ton noo­dles to Hong Kong from his na­tive Guangzhou. A few things dis­tin­guish Mak’s ac­claimed dumplings. While most won­ton mak­ers bulk out their fill­ing with pork, Mak’s just uses prawns. The re­sult­ing parcels are bite-sized and del­i­cate – an ad­dic­tive ac­com­pa­ni­ment to the ul­tra-thin noo­dles and umami-rich broth, made with dried shrimp, floun­der and pork bones. The springy tex­ture of Mak’s noo­dles can be at­trib­uted to the use of duck eggs and the way the dough is flat­tened and worked re­peat­edly. Try them served dry and tossed with an in­tensely flavoured prawn roe. Plates are snack-sized here, so solo din­ers can em­bark on a multi-course noo­dle feast. 77 Welling­ton St, Cen­tral

RONIN

Opened in She­ung Wan in 2013, this 24-seat eatery made an im­pact way out of pro­por­tion to its diminu­tive size when it was placed 45 on Asia’s 50 Best Restau­rants list this year. Cana­dian-born

chef-owner Matt Abergel, who also owns Yard­bird, di­vides the menu into three – raw, smaller and big­ger – fea­tur­ing the likes of Daniel Sor­lut oys­ters from France served with red shiso vine­gar, snack-sized grilled baby squid with shishito pep­per, and a more sub­stan­tial tomato miso udon with chorizo and wild shrimp. It has a wall of Ja­panese whisky and a dark, tim­ber-clad in­te­rior that evokes the mood of a Mu­rakami novel. Ar­rive early to claim one of only 10 walk-in bar seats. 8 On Wo La, She­ung Wan, ron­inhk.com

SUSHI MORI TOMOAKI

This sparsely fur­nished sushi den with no sig­nage has only 15 seats lin­ing an omakase counter. Choose nine, 12 or 15 pieces of sushi fash­ioned by chef Mori Tomoaki us­ing fish de­liv­ered daily from Kyushu and Hokkaido. The mixed clien­tele – cou­ples, trav­ellers, busi­ness­men – pay hushed at­ten­tion to the chef’s knife­work, which skil­fully pro­duces ni­giri us­ing the likes of sea bream with shiso leaves and plum sauce, sea bass with yuzu pep­per, and a mix of two breeds of sea urchin. Seabright Plaza, 9-23 Shell St, North Point

YAT L OK RESTAU­RANT

The crisp-skinned, del­i­cately flavoured roast goose is so pop­u­lar at this cramped, per­pet­u­ally packed one-starred eatery it’s no sur­prise its wait­staff are ea­ger to keep ta­bles churn­ing. Or­der your favourite por­tion with rice and a side of tangy plum sauce, or leave it to the chef and en­joy the sur­prise. For a dif­fer­ent carb com­po­nent, try a goose-flavoured noo­dle soup with spring onions called lai fun, or boost the protein in­take by adding a side of bar­be­cue pork, or soy and rose-wine chicken. The fast turn­around means solo cus­tomers are of­ten sum­moned from the long queue to fill a seat. 34-38 Stan­ley St, Cen­tral

AUS­TRALIA DAIRY COM­PANY

The name of this cha chaan teng may come as a sur­prise given its quintessen­tially Hong Kong fare – it’s a ho­mage to the time spent by the founder work­ing on an Aus­tralian dairy farm in the 1940s. Lo­cals love this no-frills, daap toi-only café for its steamed milk pud­dings and but­tery scram­bled eggs. To cre­ate an ex­tra-creamy tex­ture, a splash of thick Hokkaido milk is added to the curds dur­ing cook­ing. Or­der the all-day break­fast set with scram­bled eggs and but­tered white toast, which comes with a savoury mac­a­roni and ham soup. Por­tions aren’t huge, which means solo din­ers can try sev­eral dishes. Fin­ish with a vel­vety steamed milk dessert, rem­i­nis­cent of a sweet chawan­mushi. 47 Parkes St, Jor­dan

ICHI­RAN HONG KONG

Dubbed “the in­tro­vert’s par­adise” for its solo booths, Ichi­ran be­came a so­cial-me­dia sen­sa­tion when the Ja­panese ra­men shop opened a branch in Brook­lyn late last year. When its sis­ter shop opened in Cause­way Bay in 2013, the re­cep­tion was so en­thu­si­as­tic din­ers queued for three hours. The booths are sep­a­rated by par­ti­tions, os­ten­si­bly so din­ers can con­cen­trate on what’s in their bowls. Guests in­di­cate their pre­ferred top­pings, rich­ness of the tonkotsu broth, and firm­ness of ra­men on a form, then slip it through to the kitchen via a slot in the booth. The en­tire meal – from seat­ing to pay­ment via a vend­ing ma­chine – can the­o­ret­i­cally be con­ducted with­out any hu­man con­tact. Shop F–G, Lock­hart House, Block A, 440-446 Jaffe Rd, Cause­way Bay

V EA RESTAU­RANT& LOUNGE

Vicky Cheng, who cut his teeth at Daniel in New York, runs an ac­tion-packed open kitchen. At a curved mar­ble counter sur­rounded by pol­ished brass fit­tings, Cheng plates an eight-course sea­sonal menu he de­scribes as French-Chi­nese. Snacks to start in­clude quail eggs that have been pick­led, then smoked with ap­ple­wood. Com­bi­na­tions that seem cu­ri­ous on pa­per – tuna belly with burnt cu­cum­ber jelly, say – work on the plate. Cheng takes sea­son­al­ity se­ri­ously, too. Meat from lo­cally sourced hairy crabs is rolled in shiso and served in a stock made from crab shells and dashi, and a breast of pi­geon and smoked eel might be dressed in a jus of the bird’s blood. 30/F, 198 Welling­ton St, Cen­tral, vea.hk

Pre­vi­ous page: ap­ple­woodsmoked quail eggs at VEA (left); Ichi­ran’s tonkotsu ra­men with pork, spring onion and hi­den no tare sauce. Clock­wise from above: Mak’s Noo­dle; a Daniel Sor­lut oys­ter with red shiso vine­gar at Ronin (left).

Clock­wise from far left: Welling­ton Street; chef Mori Tomoaki puts the fin­ish­ing touches to a 12-piece sushi dish; Yat Lok; won­ton mein and beef brisket with noo­dles at Mak’s Noo­dle.

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