"Birds and poultry are not allowed in stations or trains." Like the bamboo scaffolding that enmeshes Hong Kong's growing towers, it's notices like these that remind you, even as the streets seethe with capital and rents soar so quickly you can almost hear them whistle past, that the city hasn't lost touch with its roots. It's a unique place, home to more restaurants per capita than any other city, its diners famously among the most particular in the world. What it lacks in local produce it makes up for with access to markets in Fukuoka, Tokyo and Paris, its place as the fulcrum between China and the rest of the globe, and as the new centre (in dollar terms, at least) of the world wine trade.
Whether it's the rustle of money or the glow of its native culinary culture, Hong Kong is a magnet for overseas talent - from greenhorns looking to make their mark to empire-builders and old hands interested in a new market. Make no mistake, it's a tough place to succeed. Two-year leases are common, and many's the operator who speaks of facing doubled rent when their time is up, so deep-pocketed groups and hotel chains still dominate the top end of town. But it may be a sign of the times that independent operators are becoming more of a presence, and some of the smarter groups are building their concepts around their chefs rather than the other way around. Up-and-coming neighbourhoods such as Kennedy Town, too, are offering the sort of (slightly) gentler rents that allow for the taking of a few more risks.
It is, in short, a particularly excellent time to be an adventurous diner in Hong Kong.
Serge et le Phoque
The island's most exciting new opening is also perhaps its most controversial. Run your eye over its reviews on Open Rice and certain themes appear: the music's too loud, the wine list comprises unfamiliar labels, unfamiliar appellations, even, and - ye gods - the toilets are in the adjoining parking garage. Read between the lines and you might get an intimation of the raffish magic that Frédéric Peneau, chef Christophe Pelé and interior-designer-slash-host-slash-sommelier Charles Pelletier have conjured in this seductive restaurant. Between them they've been involved in Le Chateaubriand, La Bigarrade and Le Dauphin (which Peneau owns), some of Paris's most interesting eateries. The menu is written just before service, right after the afternoon food delivery, and the food crackles with immediacy, great ideas and many surprises. Not the stagy, routine tricks of too many a modern eatery, but the sort of genuinely original thinking that pairs fried garlic roots with dried shiitake, scallops and anchovy, or effectively teams a schiacarello, a Corsican red wine, with grilled mackerel set with capers and olive oil under a wisp of lardo. If tasting menus - even mercifully brief ones - aren't your thing, sit at the bar and pop the lids on tins of preserves from Da Rosa Épicerie, or simply order the kilo-plus côte de boeuf from star Paris butcher Hugo Desnoyer. This is a restaurant that could be readily dropped into the Lower East Side, a Soho backstreet or indeed back into the 11th arrondissement, none of which would give it anything like the frisson of incongruity that comes from its setting in the middle of Wan Chai wet market. Essential dining.
Shop B2, G/F, Tower 1, The Zenith, 3 Wan Chai Rd, Wan Chai, +852 5465 2000
Canadian chef Matt Abergel and restaurateur Lindsay Jang shook up the local dining world in 2011 when they opened Yardbird, a yakitori bar that proved that a hip scene and ambitious food and drink could coexist in Hong Kong. Step past the glossily unmarked door into Ronin, the 14-seater they opened in 2013, and you see their vision distilled further. It might be more expensive than Yardbird, but the whopping range of Japanese whisky keeps the buzz on, and you can see your money on the plate. Seafood is the focus here and, while a rock-solid grasp of the Japanese canon underpins his cuisine, Abergel's ideas are his own, whether it's in the tang he gives crisp pomfret with fried jalapeño peppers, or the almost truffle-like taste of fresh nori woven through sea urchin set on a sort of pangrattato of panko crumbs. Another must.
8 On Wo La, Central, +852 2547 5263
Daniel Chui, director of Seventh Son, is Hong Kong dining royalty in that he's part of the family behind Fook Lam Moon; you have his grandfather to thank for the mustard you see served with roast pork at dim sum the world over. And while his restaurant is not a vast leap from that "rich man's canteen" heritage, focused on providing the bird's nest, abalone and suckling pig classics to a Cantonese business market, as a fan of Green Monday (a local extension of the Meatless Monday concept), he's developing dishes to tempt tycoons into thinking that vegetables can sweeten a business deal as readily as endangered species. To taste the entirely vegetarian supreme stock his kitchen crafts from an array of kelps and reassuringly expensive fungi to team with a bean curd-skin mushroom dumpling is to see one promising version of the evolution of Cantonese cuisine.
5-6/F, Kwan Chart Tower, 6 Tonnochy Rd, Wan Chai, +852 2892 2888
The smiling pink neon baby that beams above the door to this tiny, packed diner has become something of an instant icon for locals. In a post-Momofuku reclamation of the Chinese-style bun, chef May Chow draws as freely on her appreciation of American culture as she does on her Hong Kong childhood. There's "hawt" sauce on the counter and Vans x Little Bao shirts on the young staff, but it's fermented bean curd that provides the creamy stank on the excellent lamb tartare served with tofu crisps, and fried dace (the tinned fish that has been a pantry staple for many a local family) with black bean that drops the umami bomb on a freeform chopped Caesar salad. And the bao? In a nod to the burger joints that were in part her inspiration, Chow spreads them with miso mayo and griddles them before filling them, giving them a bit more structure. With a cold tin of beer in one paw and the fried-chicken number, fizzy with Sichuan pepper, in the other, it's an easy point to appreciate.
66 Staunton St, Central, +852 2194 0202
Ho Lee Fook
Australia, take a bow. Jowett Yu might technically be more Canadian than he is Australian, or indeed more Taiwanese, but it was at Mr Wong and Ms G's that he made his mark before moving to Asia so, as with Crowded House or Russell Crowe on a good day, we're going to cheat and claim him as our own. Yu is a bona-fide sensation in Hong Kong. With fellow Aussie young-gun Bao La as his right-hand man, he's crafting food at Ho Lee Fook ("good fortune for your mouth" indeed) that keeps the waitlist at this dim basement restaurant hopping. His roast goose is as worthy of attention as that served on the top floor of Yung Kee or at newcomer Kam's Roast Goose, while belly pork, slow-cooked tender, its fat rendered well on the grill, takes its lift from a salsa of roasted chilli, black bean and almonds. He cross-breeds okonomiyaki with prawn toast with delicious results, while roasted soy-glazed wagyu short rib presents as the bone down the middle of the plate dividing knotty gnarls of intercostal from slices of the bigger, juicier muscle, with jalapeño purée and spring onion kimchi to cut the richness. It is, as The Simpsons once put it, a party in your mouth and everyone's invited.
1 Elgin St, Central, +852 2810 0860
Is this the new face of Cantonese dining? "Best Chinese Restaurant" says the website, modestly. In a post-Hakkasan, Mr Wong/Spice Temple-savvy dining landscape, glam basement eateries sporting AvroKO-style decorative flourishes, cocktail menus rich in shiso, jasmine and ginger beer, and "evening dim sum" selections can seem somehow commonplace. What raises Mott 32 above the din isn't so much the styling as the quality of its cooking. Chef Fung Man Yip gained a reputation for cooking the best char siu in town when he was at Dynasty, and his roasting skills, if the superb barbecue Ibérico pork and perfectly lacquered Peking duck here are any guide, have lost none of their lustre. Does the wine list really need its reserve listings annotated with the wines' Parker and Suckling scores? Perhaps not. But beyond the gloss and occasional gaucherie lies a restaurant of some substance. Premier cru Burgundy by the glass and possibly the best crisp-shelled char siu bao in Hong Kong certainly tick the boxes.
Standard Chartered Bank Building, 4-4a Des Voeux Rd, Central, +852 2885 8688
If nothing else, the vitrines of goji kvass, persimmon horchata and turmeric ginger beer glowing on the shelves give this third-floor eatery a touch of Damien Hirst intrigue. But Nurdin Topham didn't spend his years in the kitchen at Le Manoir with Raymond Blanc decorating; his palate is as sharp as his technique, so while a meal at Nur might kick off with a jasmine tea kombucha from one of his vats, there's nothing gimmicky about the food that follows. Sweetcorn, served as both a creamy purée and kernels sautéed in butter with a whisper of fermented chilli, chimes with a deep-orange egg yolk bathed in chicken jus and scattered with purslane, radish shoots and puffed brown rice. And there's every bit as much daring and finesse in the Nicolas Joly Les Vieux Clos chenin blanc offered by sommelier Gavin Ho.
3/F, 1 Lyndhurst Tce, Central, +852 2871 9993
An offshoot of the restaurant of the same name in New York, this slice of Little Italy preserves Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone's vision of a classic red-sauce joint done with as much attention to detail as nostalgia. So while the epic chop might be buried in breading, tomatoes and mozzarella, the veal is still pale and juicy inside, and the rigatoni with tomato, vodka and cream sauce is in no way tricked-up. Team Carbone has the confidence, too, to leave the dessert cart largely unreconstructed, relying instead on the face-value appeal of the carrot cake with ginger ice-cream or the lemon cheesecake to a dining clientele grateful for some relief from the flowers and squiggles so common to contemporary pâtisserie. Watching Mario's cousin Louie, he of the wide lapel and easy quip, flambéing bananas tableside is pure pleasure. This is the food of Italy by way of Dean Martin and Louis Prima, and if it feels like Scorsese is going to whip past in an epic tracking-shot at any moment then so much the better.
9/F, LKF Tower, 33 Wyndham St, Central, +852 2593 2593
Tenku Ryu Gin
Yes, you read right - 101 floors up, a fitting perch perhaps for a restaurant whose name translates as singing dragon. Ryu Gin is acclaimed in Tokyo for its modern take on kaiseki-style dining, and so it is here at the top of the world: the staff whisper to you, you find yourself whispering to them, they whisper into their comms systems. There doesn't seem to be much danger that anyone's going to start dancing on the tables, but the food is pretty remarkable. Monkfish liver is creamily dense against the bounce of surf clams, dressed with white miso and yellow mustard, while the flavour of crab and crab-miso set on a shiitake custard under a bouillon jelly is so potent it still lingers (pleasantly!) two courses later. The detail work here is impressive, whether it's in the choice of sake vessels (cut glass, a sliver of a saucer, clay under a bubbly glaze) or the frequency with which the crushed ice is replaced in the bowl holding the sake jug.
101/F, International Commerce Centre, 1 Austin Rd West, Tsim Sha Tsu, +852 2302 0222
You may have heard the Hong Kong branch of 121BC described as a hybrid of its Sydney siblings, Vini and 121BC in Surry Hills, and that's pretty much spot-on, right down to the massive globes on the chandelier, the Cantina Giardino and Olek Bondonio on the wine list and the nebuchadnezzar of schioppettino on the counter. It's not built quite on so nano a scale as the original 121, with a long table down the centre of the room and seating along the window and bar. Where ordering something out-there like a thoroughly orange wine from Sardinian producer Panevino might be met with a gleeful reception from the staff in Sydney, the guys here warn the customer that it's nutty and unusual before producing the bottle, which suggests that the Hong Kong consumer is still relatively conservative, but there's plenty here for the bold palate nonetheless. The food side is more immediately comforting: addictive crisps of fried dough come out gratis with the drinks, octopus comes paired with lardo and a chickpea purée, and the ricotta panna cotta with espresso caramel and almonds is known to make the occasional appearance on the blackboard.
42-44 Peel St, Central, +852 2395 0200
Shane Osborn was the first Australian to be awarded two Michelin stars, and after he left Pied à Terre in London, he moved to Hong Kong. His association with St Betty, his first venture here, was short-lived, but at Arcane he's in his element. It's a small, crisply appointed restaurant in a new building, kitted out with a plant-shaded terrace, but the best seats might be those right on the kitchen pass. Osborn writes relatively orthodox menus, but his execution is so tight that familiar flavour combinations such as fat, golden sautéed gnocchi with morel ragoût, cèp purée, roasted leek and black truffle pop and sing on the plate with unexpected intensity. Aided and abetted by an equally tightly edited wine list, it packs a punch.
3/F, 18 On Lan St, Central, +852 2728 0178
La Cabane a Vin
The trailblazers of the Hong Kong natural wine scene, the La Cabane gang are as welcoming a group of bon viveurs as you're likely to find on the island. The fact that they're French and mostly male may account for the popularity of the bar with young women - it's a far cry from the Kronenbourg-clutching expat hell-zone back down in the heart of Lan Kwai Fong. Here, it's all about a list of mostly French, mostly interesting wine and good chat. There's a mighty impressive lot of cheese on offer, oysters from Brittany and plenty of charcuterie, all the better to make the most of all that muscadet, cab franc and good gamay on by the glass.
62 Hollywood Rd, Central, +852 2776 6070