Travel: Hong Kong's delicious cuisine lives up to the likes of Spain and Italy
Best known for high finance, skyscrapers and shopping, you might not think of Hong Kong as a foodie destination. But to underestimate the culinary prowess of China's top tourist destination is a mistake, writes Francesca Gosling
SNAKING through a labyrinth of stalls selling local beers, vintage European red wines and revered Japanese whiskies, I interrupt the flow of alcohol by eyeing up freshly made snacks, including what I can only reasonably describe as the world's best egg waffle.
Forget those gimmicky ice-cream sundae versions; this savoury delight – smothered in soy glaze and crispy seaweed and served up in seconds – certainly hits the sweet spot.
Best known for its international finance centres and excellent shopping opportunities, Hong Kong might not rate top of a foodie traveller's hit list. But to underestimate its culinary prowess is a big mistake.
I frequently dream of rustic trattorias in Tuscany, wine with a view in Paris, and bustling tapas bars in Barcelona, yet visiting this Chinese special administrative region for a gourmet getaway has never previously crossed my mind. Until now.
The Hong Kong Wine & Dine Festival
The Hong Kong Wine & Dine Festival is staged along the island's Victoria Harbour every October, and it provides me with a good excuse to visit. But beyond the four-day event, there's a wealth of restaurants and street-food vendors to discover.
Embraced by the luxurious October warm air, I'm gearing up for a night out in Central, the gritty and gaudy heart of Hong Kong island, where locals and expats gather for late dinner and drinks in street corner bars.
An unmissable restaurant
An absolute must-visit is contemporary diner Happy Paradise (52-56 Staunton Street), the latest opening by May Chow. Voted Asia's best female chef, she serves up an incredibly innovative menu combining traditional Cantonese cooking with international fusion. Try the smoked pigeon and the crispy, deep-fried apple, flavoured with apple 'ash' and five spice mochi (a sweet and creamy delicacy made from sticky rice).
Complementing the sensational food and surreal atmosphere – picture an industrial kitchen festooned with technicoloured neon lights – there's a menu of intriguing cocktails (Truffle Spritz, Black Lava, and an ominous Unbeatable Conman).
Soaking up the sightseeing flavours
Over the next few days, I find myself completely absorbed in the sights, smells and sounds of this high-intensity city. Having recently celebrated 20 years of independence from British rule, it's a region both fiercely proud of its vibrant Eastern heritage, but also committed to standing at the forefront of modern development.
Even the newest skyscrapers are erected according to ancient feng shui principles, with gaping holes built in to allow the easy passage of spiritual dragons.
Restaurants follow a similar approach, with hip new eateries standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the last of the city's noisy dai pai dongs (traditional street diners), soon to be wiped out by health and safety laws.
Book yourself a Foodie Tasting Tour
The best way to get a flavour of it all is with a Foodie Tasting Tour around the Central and Sheung Wan districts, and I am delighted to hand over navigational responsibilities to local guide, Yammy.
She leads my group through the busy markets, where we stop to indulge in slow-roasted barbecue pork and rice at the unassuming Dragon Restaurant on Queen Victoria Street, heavenly wonton noodle soup at the family-run, underground Tsim Chai Kee Noodle on Wellington Street, and crumbly egg tarts – a perfectly adapted hangover from British occupation – at Hillier Street's Hei Lee Cake Shop.
The three-hour trip ($750HK/£68 per adult) also includes a visit to the heady, incense-infused Man Mo Temple. It's named after the gods of war and literature, and locals still pop in every day to consult the deities on life's biggest and smallest issues.
The perfect place to rest
With all senses fully saturated, I sleepily head to my room at the stylish Kerry Hotel. Sitting majestically on the water's edge of mainland Kowloon, this recent addition to the Shangri-La family is a calm and spacious nirvana after a day on the island.
Again, food is a priority here and guests are spoilt for choice with a whole roasted duck at the chic Hung Tong restaurant and a 'dessert lab' at the main Big Bay Cafe, created by a superb in-house chocolatier.
After a final glass of bubbles on the garden terrace of the hotel's trendy Red Sugar bar – and a cheeky moonlit swim in the outdoor infinity pool – I collapse into an enormous, sumptuous bed. Hours later, I wake to a spectacular Insta-worthy view of the sun-soaked island from my wall of panoramic windows.
Enjoy breakfast Hong Kong style
I start the next day in genuine Hong Kong style with breakfast at Lin Heung Tea House, which first opened its doors on Wellington Street in 1926. This hectic family favourite takes no bookings, inviting visitors to pull up a stool at communal tables, before collecting steamers full of shrimp-filled rice rolls, duck's feet, quail egg dumplings and enormous fluffy bao buns from the circulating trollies.
After a day of sightseeing – gazing at the breathtaking silvery skyline from Victoria Peak after an ascent via the famous 130-year-old funicular tram – it's time for a very different eating experience.
A secret seafood escape
Having attracted the attention of some of the world's finest chefs, Hong Kong now offers several international treats. One especially extravagant option is Olivier Bellin's The Ocean on Repulse Bay – the island's quieter south side.
I work my way through a menu of experimental Breton offerings, from the 'Blue Lagoon' Japanese urchin with hay and coffee, to the 'Deep Sea' blue lobster with pork head veil and grapefruit, and am even gifted a bag of handmade hazelnut cookies to take home.
The following day, I spend a shopaholic afternoon in the throng of the famous Ladies' Market, where even the most timid barterers (ahem, me) quickly get drawn into the art of haggling for bargain souvenirs and accessories.
As the sun goes down, I sip a glass of crisp white wine on board the Aqua Luna, a traditional junk boat now used for tourist cruises.
A brunch like no other
All too soon, my fabulous city break is over, but not before checking out Hong Kong's special take on the boozy brunch.
I start with gourmet dim sum and quirky cocktails crafted by Fung Man-Ip at Duddell's, situated on the roof of 1 Duddell Street. The afternoon disappears as I lounge in the sun and enjoy several Jack Jazz Rabbits – a carrot juice alternative to a Bloody Mary – and a steady flow of dumplings, topped with delicate soft-boiled quail eggs and miniature pineapple buns stuffed with sticky pork.
If you fancy giving it a try closer to home, head to Duddell's sister restaurant in London. But be warned – it's likely to be busy, because the word about Hong Kong's delicious cuisine is spreading. Having eaten my way across the island, I can safely say it lives up to the likes of Italy and Spain – and is every bit as dreamy.
:: Rooms at the Kerry Hotel (shangri-la.com/hongkong/kerry) in Hung Hom Bay, Kowloon cost from $2,400HK (approximately £229) per night.
:: Return flights from London Heathrow to Hong Kong cost from £550 with Cathay Pacific (cathaypacific.com).