Hong Kong has long been one of Asia's most vibrant cities, and also one of the most resilient. It's proved itself time and again, bouncing back from economic downturn, the return to Chinese rule, and, most recently, SARS. In fact, the only people wearing face masks now are the street sweepers, just as they have done for decades. If one of the surest signs of recovery is a booming restaurant scene, they don't get any more booming than the one in Hong Kong, a city obsessed not just with food, but also with eating out. "The recovery was very fast, very sudden," says Susan Jung, food editor and veteran chronicler of the city's evolving cuisine for the South China Morning Post. "One day it seemed that nobody was eating out, then suddenly we couldn't get tables in our favorite places. It's back to normal and beyond."
Certainly the most compelling evidence that Hong Kong had lost no ground is Alain Ducasse's newest Spoon, in the InterContinental hotel. The stunning views across Victoria Harbor to the hills and skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island make it one of the best locations in the city. But it's worth breaking your gaze to study the menu, which is much more polished than at Ducasse's Paris and London Spoons. At those, the menus are a bit gimmicky: a mix-and-match assortment allowing you to order your own combination of meat, sauce, and vegetable. We've never been impressed by the D.I.Y. approach, so we were happy to see that this Spoon also has a chef's special menu making full use of our favorite ingredients: Jabugo ham, duck foie gras, and truffles. Every dish was presented artfully, if a little quirkily, as in a trio of soups (beef consommé, cream of pumpkin, tomato) served in tall shot glasses that looked like a chemistry experiment. Five small, immaculate courses later—platters of turbot, roast lamb, Comté cheese—dessert arrived in yet another pristine arrangement, which included a tiny cheesecake, a chocolate mousse topped with hazelnuts, and an assortment of autumnal red berries. There's a fabulous wine list at equally fantastical prices, and service is everything that you would expect in one of the best hotels in Asia. This is a smart addition to a rapidly advancing restaurant scene and brings Hong Kong thoroughly up to date.
In a city that craves modernity but pays lip service to the past, the three-year-old Water Margin still surprises—starting with the entrance: You reach it by riding a glass elevator up the side of a very modern building in the Causeway Bay district. Once inside the twelfth-floor dining room, dark wooden screens, paper lanterns, and staff wearing peasant-style uniforms all evoke ancient China. The dishes, however, are modern Chinese, served on Japanese-style tableware. The crisp, deboned rack of lamb is the dish to get, served with a sweet scallion-and-soy sauce, à la traditional roast duck. Also good are the prawns with Sichuan pepper; unlike most dishes here, which are toned down to suit Western tastes, these have plenty of kick and reflect the growing interest in regional Chinese cooking that is sweeping Hong Kong.
In fact, you'd be missing some of the best food in Hong Kong if you skipped the terrific regional cuisine. Not many other cities in the world bring together the tastes of Canton, Hunan, Sichuan, and Beijing. The most memorable dishes are at Cheung Sang Kee, also in Causeway Bay. In most ways this appears to be an unexceptional restaurant set in a shopping mall (as so many Hong Kong restaurants are), but don't be fooled. The rich Huai-Yang cooking, which comes from the Yangtze delta, is superb. Try the Jinhua ham—cooked instead of cured—in honey sauce served with lotus seeds. The dong po pork (pork belly braised in soy and vinegar to a jelly-like consistency) is also unmissable. There's no signage in English, but the menu is translated and staff speak English. Still, if you can, take a friend who speaks Chinese and knows the dishes, because you won't find food like this at home.
Dim sum is, of course, one of the great pleasures of eating out in Hong Kong, but the cutting edge is no longer found in the established dim sum restaurants featured in guidebooks. For delectable and innovative dim sum, affluent Hong Kong folk head to one of the three Superstar Seafood restaurants where, like everything else in town, tradition is taking a turn for the modern. You can still order classics such as siu mai, char siu bao, and har gau. But it's better to try the pumpkin and fish rolled in a pastry resembling shredded wheat and then deep-fried until crisp. Another specialty of Superstar is the stonefish. It's both ugly and dangerous to catch—its dorsal fin injects potential predators with a lethal poison—but the white flesh is delectable. Clearly, the droves of professionals who fill this popular spot feel it's worth sacrificing the occasional careless fisherman.
Spoon Dinner, $180. At 18 Salisbury Rd., Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon; 852-2313-2256.
Water Margin Dinner, $60. At 1205, 12/F Food Forum, Times Square, Causeway Bay; 852-3102-0088.
Cheung Sang Kee Dinner, $50. At Paliburg Plaza, 68 Yee Wo St., Causeway Bay; 852-2577-7886.
Superstar Seafood Dinner, $76. At 4/F Harbour City, 21 Canton Rd., Tsim Sha Tsui; 852-2116-2618.
Restaurant prices reflect a three-course dinner for two, excluding beverages and gratuity.