The wait is over—dig into the most exciting places to eat in Hong Kong and Macau right now
For the past six years, we have set ourselves the challenge of distilling a year’s worth of dining experiences into a list of 20 exceptional restaurants—a task that is, crucially, approached with an open mind. Joining Hong Kong Tatler’s Dining Editor Wilson Fok and myself is the T.Dining panel of reviewers (page 10), a diverse group of experienced food writers and trusted palates who tasted and rated more than 220 restaurants and bars in Hong Kong and Macau with us. Each restaurant’s score is based on four key criteria—food, setting, drinks and service—and, more importantly, judged in the context of whether or not it offers something exceptional and unique.
The T.Dining Top 20 is not a list of the best restaurants of all time. Given the volatile nature of the dining scene and the continuous evolution that even extends to our all-time favourites, it would be fruitless—not to mention a bore—to simply publish a collection of what everyone already knows from years of restaurant rankings and Michelin-star accolades.
What this list aims to do is to showcase the restaurants that we felt offered the most exceptional dining experiences of the year and that have the potential for more surprises yet to come.
A restaurant can be technically brilliant and score highly on paper—but can fail to make it on the list if it appeared perfunctory or lacked soul, or if we had seen little progress or development in the last 12 months. Our reviewers didn’t merely review, tallying points on their scoresheets like QC officers—they also appraised, putting forward their thoughts on who had exceeded expectations and who had failed to transcend their reputations. They rallied behind restaurants they felt offered more than just a good meal—and made their voices heard about those whose standards had slipped. And so, after months of anonymous visits, blind voting and deliberating, we are proud to reveal our definitive Top 20 list for the year. There are some old favourites, as well as some surprising new entrants—we think that every single one should be added to your dining agenda right now.
What defines a great restaurant? In our quest to find the most memorable dining experiences in Hong Kong and Macau, we discovered a diverse landscape that includes everything from serious noodle bars to multi-course culinary
nirvanas—proof that the idea of fine dining is no longer what it used to be. Charmaine Mok lifts the cloche on the
current state of our evolving food scene
HOW WE DO IT
Each restaurant is reviewed anonymously— our reviewers do not make themselves known to the restaurant prior to their visit—and rated using an extensive scoresheet that takes into account more than 35 different points of reference including creativity of the plating, manners of staff, comprehensiveness of the drinks list, and whether or not the restaurant makes an effort to be environmentally aware. Reviewers are also encouraged to include additional notes and comments that are not covered by the scoring matrix. Following the completion of the reviews, we compiled the scores to find the top-rated restaurants—this year, 70 venues made the cut. Each reviewer was given the list, in alphabetical order and with no final scores to influence them, and asked to select 20 restaurants they felt were most deserving of inclusion based on their experiences; conversely, they were also asked to mark down venues that they felt were not appropriate. Ultimately, the Top 20 list is an expression of the restaurants that have captured the zeitgeist of the dining scene in 2017. Flip ahead to read more about them.
One of the most talked-about topics in the dining industry this year was the curious case of the chef swap. In April, Frenchmen Fabrice Vulin and Guillaume Galliot officially took up their posts of executive chef—at the other’s restaurant. After the initial bemusement and speculation, it has become apparent that the unintentional exchange has done both a world of good. We find Galliot’s cuisine at his new home of Caprice (page 93) to be even more refined than before—as befitting this bastion of fine French gastronomy, Galliot brings a confidence to the Four Seasons with creations such as crab laksa with confit egg—a thoroughly contemporary dish that defies all expectations of what should be served at a French restaurant.
Meanwhile, Vulin—our 2016 Best New Chef award recipient—has found his own rhythm at TheTastingRoom (page 118) in Macau’s City of Dreams. A staunch supporter of French produce and classic techniques, Vulin nevertheless champions a new way for Gallic gastronomy with his bold flavour pairings born from an international resumé. For example, Gillardeau oysters, usually perfect on their own, are enlivened with rice espuma, yuzu-scented vegetables and lardo di Colonnata. But don’t be mistaken—the Frenchman knows exactly what to do with a premium Alexandre Polmard beef tenderloin, simply served with delicate soufflé potatoes and classic French Riviera condiments.
In the same vein, Nicolas Boutin of
Épure (page 93) continues to fine-tune his dishes that astound with their surfacelevel simplicity—a piece of foie gras comes burnished and caramelised and, in Boutin’s
We’re hoping that more chefs will find inspiration from
Hong Kong, creating a new kind of gastronomy
eyes, needs nothing more than a razor-thin slice of the most pristine pear as its bedfellow, the fruit’s gentle sweetness and whisper of acidity calmly tackling the richness of the liver. It’s hard not to be enamoured by the restraint shown in the plates here; the rather exceptional desserts by pastry chef Ken Thomas drive the point home. Like Boutin, Thomas’ creations are modest in design, but innovative in execution.
The evolution of French cuisine has played out in a fascinating way in Hong Kong, with venues such as SergeetlePhoque (page
80), which has just opened a second branch in London, reminiscent of the bistronomy movement in Paris—with approachable dining that doesn’t sacrifice creativity, and speaks of its time and place. At Serge, few diners escape without the obligatory dacquoise for dessert, which has become a delicious constant in a world of waxing and waning trends. The rest of the menu is where you can exercise your adventurous side, with dishes ranging from sea bass with mangosteen and wakame to Challandais duck with cloud ear mushrooms and sakura (quite often, ingredients are sourced from the Wan Chai wet market across the road), all done with aplomb by chef Nicholas Chew.
We’re hoping that more chefs will find inspiration from Hong Kong, creating a new kind of gastronomy—Daniel Calvert’s use of a locally grown corn to create his fresh polenta with Australian black truffle comes to mind. The chef ’s inspired neo-bistro cooking is reason why Belon (page 78) is back on the Top 20 list for the second time since it opened. Since taking over from James Henry,
Guillaume Galliot’s crab laksa with confit egg yolk dish at Caprice is inspired by his journeys to Singapore
AN ARCHITECT OF TASTE
Vicky Cheng of VEA is known for his surprising take on French cuisine
Calvert has shifted the menu to portray his own point of view. Expect refined takes on French favourites (the pigeon pithivier is ethereal), and stay open-minded about the esoteric and distinctly un-French creations such as the merguez sausage sandwich with salsa verde.
Another chef who has carved his own style of cuisine with classical training is Hideaki Sato of TaVie (page 80), who has successfully parlayed his understanding of French and Japanese techniques into dishes that are visually stunning and highly original. Sato is the kind of chef who will readily nerd out when it comes to the ingredients at his disposal—each item on the plate tasting distinct and somehow more than itself. He’s also a fan of using creative techniques to fashion culinary surprises, such as combining flour, water and squid ink to create realisticlooking abalone shells. The enthusiasm for produce, both local and foreign, translates into dishes that truly speak of the season— and in turn speak to us.
When it comes to the language of food, Vicky Lau’s fluency in the art manifests in a menu she calls “All the Odes”—a serious tasting menu at Tate (page 80), her split-level restaurant on the quieter end of Hollywood Road. Each course is inspired by a significant ingredient or memory, from the flavour of Chiu Chow marinade to the scent of osmanthus. The lyrical quality of Lau’s food is neatly matched by the picture-perfect setting that betrays her past as a graphic designer; the dishes are each self-contained pieces of art, rendered in brilliant hues, shapes and textures.
From one Vicky to another, we arrive at VEA (page 80), Vicky Cheng and Antonio Lai’s bijou Central restaurant, where the tiny details (the velveteen rest pad to keep your mobile phone from sliding off the marble tabletop, for example) and the overarching storyline of the food combine to become more than the sum of their parts. Staunchly proud of his Hong Kong and Shanghainese heritage, Cheng’s menu is filled with thrilling spins on tradition, from the superlative roasted sea cucumber with langoustine and cordyceps to a beautifully cooked local yellow chicken paired with Chinese cabbage, scallions and Iberico lardo.
Another new addition to the Top 20 list this year is just one street away but, gastronomically speaking, worlds apart.
ALL UNI IS LOVE
Shinji by Kanesaka offers an indulgent experience of premium Japanese produce
Goshima Shinya’s Godenya (page 101) is not the kind of restaurant you stumble across, but make purposeful strides toward, despite it being hidden down a dark, narrow alleyway. Beyond the doors, you’ll find a peaceful shrine to the art of sake. Shinya’s menu of genreskirting creations (a delicate scampi tom yum goong is one of his specialities) feature dishes that are each skilfully paired with a sake, chilled or warmed to the optimum temperature. A meal here is more than just about eating and drinking—we can learn much from this master of gastronomy.
Also in the area is modern Japanese izakaya Ronin (page 83), the modish followup restaurant by the team behind Yardbird (which, by the time of going to press, was about to move to its new location in Sheung Wan). Behind the cool, slate-coloured sliding door is a lengthy room that wouldn’t look out of place in the trendier part of Ginza, where diners sip thin glass tumblers of premium small-batch sake, paired with highly inventive, seafood-focused small plates. This is the kind of place where ingredients are handled just enough to coax out their maximum flavour without obscuring their essence—the grilled pike mackerel with a zingy parsley, onion and mugi miso topping is one of the best mouthfuls we’ve had this year.
In the same vein of respecting Japanese ingredients and techniques, we’re enthused by the unique creations by Max Levy over at Okra in Sai Ying Pun—but it’s his hideaway, OkraBar (page 103), situated on the upper floor of the building, that has a well-earned place on this year’s Top 20. The omakaseonly restaurant is quite unlike any sushi bar you may have been to before—not only due to its slightly clinical, white-tiled counters, but also for the original combinations that flank the expertly crafted nigiri. Levy’s silky chawanmushi with Carabineros prawn and the titular okra is a true signature, and the masterfully aged varieties of fish that top much of his sushi are a gastronomic lesson in themselves.
But when a more classic sushi-ya experience is what we’re after, we would cross the seas to Macau in an instant—to dine at Shinjiby Kanesaka (page 121), here on the list for the second year in a row. Chef de cuisine Toru Osumi is a true master of the craft and the omakase menu here is a must. Osumi’s pacing is impeccable, with each diner’s journey perfectly judged so that every morsel that lands in front of you is perfectly timed—the hours flow by gently, like a trail of rich honey. What we also appreciate about the Shinji experience is the utter lack of pretension—Osumi and his comrades are warm and welcoming, dissolving any fears of an intimidating atmosphere that can often pervade high-end sushi bars.
The disappearance of stilted, formal service can only be welcomed with open arms—it’s a suggestion of the changing of the tides, where serious gastronomy is no longer synonymous with strict rules of behaviour. At Haku (page 79), helmed by Agustin Balbi (our Best New Chef awardee in 2015), the atmosphere is akin to that of a lively izakaya—chefs banter with diners from across the handsome wood counter, the semi-open kitchen offers culinary theatrics and the drinks flow freely. Balbi, who previously trained at Tokyo’s Cuisines Michel Troisgros, has come into his own since helming seafood-centric restaurant The Ocean; his preparation of ingredients from simple sweetcorn to luxurious Kagoshima A4 wagyu are nothing short of extraordinary, presented on beautiful handcrafted crockery. We also appreciate that this is the kind of place where diners can feel as comfortable ordering a beer as they would a glass of the finest Burgundy—both of which are on offer.
The disappearance of stilted, formal service can
only be welcomed with open arms—it’s a changing of the tides, where serious gastronomy is no longer synonymous with strict
rules of behaviour
This mix of high-end gastronomy with a more convivial environment reminds us of new addition Frantzén’s Kitchen (page 79), the casual offshoot of Stockholm’s two-Michelin-starred Restaurant Frantzén. Located at the top of Upper Station Street, the diminutive venue offers warm Swedish hospitality combined with seriously complex cooking. Chef Jim Löfdahl has worked with Björn Frantzén since the early days of the restaurant in Sweden, and he brings forth a distinct interpretation of modern Nordic gastronomy, incorporating uncommon ingredients such as fermented lingonberries, crispy white moss and vendace roe into highly original dishes.
This confidence can also be seen at David Lai’s Neighborhood (page 79), which has become something of a cult favourite among food lovers. You could say Lai is the chef ’s chef, a respected peer that has carved his own way following his classical training under the tutelage of Alain Ducasse. At this small hideaway restaurant, the daily-changing menu encompasses seriously good ingredients and time-old techniques, spun with a little bit of Lai’s culinary whimsy and a Mediterranean slant—you end up with awe-inspiring dishes such as runny quails’ eggs cooked with butter and herbs like the classic escargot, or saltbaked local chicken with black truffle and giblet rice.
This humble dedication to ingredients reminds us of another chef—Shane Osborn of Arcane (page 78), a truly unsung hero of Hong Kong’s culinary scene. His modestly sized restaurant on the third floor of a Central skyscraper may not have the pizzazz of flashier addresses, but the level of cooking is top-class—and Osborn is always in the kitchen, not being the type to simply splash his name on the menu and reap the rewards. His contemporary blend of European traditions and seasonal, flavourforward produce (mainly a mix of Australian, British and Japanese) creates a cuisine that is individual and distinctive.
The same can be said of Amber (page
78), a stalwart on the dining scene, with chef Richard Ekkebus at the helm for more than 10 years since its opening. The continual evolution of The Landmark Mandarin Oriental restaurant has been intriguing, and the menu is as exciting and accomplished
The continual evolution of Amber has been intriguing, and the menu is as exciting and
accomplished as ever Amber’s Korean abalone with black pepper, vinegar-seasoned tomato compote and braised then crisped oxtail
Clockwise, from top left: Golden Flower’s broiled beef slices with sesame puffs; Jade Dragon’s steamed garoupa; the main dining room at Samsen
as ever. Ekkebus has pared down slightly, decreasing the menu options from six main courses to four, showcasing the very best— the Miyazaki wagyu is heftily priced, but second-to-none, the beef ’s natural umami enhanced by the addition of dried red onion skin and seaweed powder. A meal at Amber is often atop the list for many visitors, but remains firmly a favourite among Hongkongers as well.
While the level of Chinese cookery is high in this city, we implore you to cross over once again to Macau, where Tam Kwok-fung’s Jade Dragon (page 117) remains one of the region’s best restaurants for modern Cantonese cuisine. As one of the most long-standing members of the Top 20 list, the team have proven time and time again that remaining consistent while also challenging the status quo are skills they possess. From delicate dim sum to roasted meats imbued with lychee wood smoke, Tam’s gastronomic offerings are deeply informed by decades of knowledge and experience of one of the world’s greatest culinary traditions.
Similarly, an inspiring experience can be found at GoldenFlower (page 117), another long-standing Top 20 awardee that continues to impress with its profound execution of highly intricate and obscure regional Chinese cuisine. Liu Guozhu’s dramatic Wynn Macau restaurant is a paean to China’s great gastronomic traditions, focusing on imperial Tan cuisine and its extremely labour-intensive preparations; traditional Cantonese, Sichuan and Shandong dishes are also respectfully rendered to great effect.
Spending time to perfect age-honoured recipes also plays out at our final Top 20 entrant, which appears on the list for the first time. The tiny Wan Chai restaurant Samsen (page 83) surprised us with its immense dedication to something as simple as a bowl of soup noodles. Adam Cliff, a dedicated disciple of Thai cookery for 15 years, spent a whole year tweaking his recipe for the restaurant’s signature wagyu beef noodles—a labour-intensive dish that sees his team making the pig’s blood-enriched broth every day from scratch, simmering each batch for at least two to three hours. Despite being a casual, no-reservations restaurant with paper place mats and a drinks list that is more lager than Lafite, it’s living proof that the definition of great dining is no longer so rigid—and thank goodness for that.