Each step leading to the first floor of Maison Libanaise is daubed in toybox shades of bright pink, red, blue, turquoise, orange. It's the prettiest way to cross borders from street-level Hong Kong's jumble and jostle into rustic Lebanon.
You might have had dim sum for breakfast, but here you'll savour the warm, spicy flavours of the Middle East; zhoug and zaatar; baba ganoush and hummus and all the while the aroma of pita bread baking in the wood stone oven downstairs.
In the middle of it all is a chef who is neither Chinese nor Lebanese. James Harrison is from Melbourne, and like so many Australians, he's most at home where cultures intersect.
He's in a vanguard of young, talented Australian chefs clustered around the cool SoHo area in Hong Kong Island's Central district, turning everything they touch to culinary gold. Name a restaurant that's hot right now, and it's more than likely you'll find an Australian chef behind the pans. A food safari through their various speciality restaurants adds another chapter to Hong Kong's vast compendium of foodie adventures.
We start at Maison Libanaise, on Shelley Street, next to the famous Mid Levels escalator and amid the hip stores, coffee shops, galleries, street food stalls and miscellaneous intoxicating clutter of Central. It's inspired by a traditional Lebanese house and clearly one owned by a wine buff, as the entire wall is lined with the best Lebanese drops. Grab this opportunity to explore an ancient and excellent region that's underrepresented in Australia. Once you've fallen for a deep, brooding Chateau Musar Rouge 2000 or a crisp Chateau St Thomas Obeidy, made with the region's native grapes, you'll either be seeking out a supplier or planning your next jaunt to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.
Save some love for the solids, though, because Maison Libanaise encourages you to be promiscuous. Favourites are swiftly chosen and then supplanted as you explore the share-style menu of hot and cold mezze plates and "something bigger" dishes. Initially I'm devoted to the pan-fried, honey-glazed haloumi with its soft, sweet doonah of dates, then swayed by the pungent heat of spicy harissa roasted cauliflower, then the creamy/sharp delights of the sole fillet en papillotte, smothered in tahini and fried almonds and baked in sumac and lemon. Then Harrison blows away all our previous allegiances by bringing out a showstopper of a cheesecake, made with labneh and honey.
As we feast, he describes the layers of meticulous care bestowed upon each ingredient in every dish. For eggplant fattoush, the lucky eggplant visits the kitchen equivalent of a spa; it's salted for an hour, soaked, dried and tenderly brushed with confit garlic and toasted coriander before being deep-fried. The tomatoes travel from Israel (probably first class) to be roasted with orange blossom salt and sumac. The little croutons are house-made from pita that's over-baked then fried and tossed with sumac, salt and zaatar. The radish, Harrison concedes, is just as it comes.
He learned his from-scratch approach as a child in his grandmother's kitchen in rural Victoria, before applying it to Middle Eastern cuisine under the guidance of Melbourne mentor and Lebanese maestro Greg Malouf. Harrison's passion for making everything himself – the dips are renewed twice a day and the bread to order, with the dough rolled each morning – is so intense I suspect he'd sob at the sight of a tin.
Just a few streets away, fellow Australian import Jowett Yu is similarly galvanised by the pursuit of excellence at the furiously popular Ho Lee Fook, and after two years of tweaking, is at last "pretty satisfied" with his roast goose. "We've put a lot of work into it and I think it stands up to some of the famous places in Hong Kong," he says. Yu honed his creative, sometimes anarchic, take on Asian cuisine at Sydney's Mr Wong and Ms Gs, and his technical excellence is grounded in classic training and fine dining stints at Tetsuya's and Marque. Add Taiwanese heritage and a Canadian childhood and plonk it all down in Ho Lee Fook's frenetic open kitchen, with waving golden cats on the wall and mah jong tiles on the counter, and the result is probably the closest you'll ever get to defining the soul of Australian cooking. Aussie chefs excel at plunging into a pandemonium of influences and extracting coherent treasures such as Yu's tender, succulent wagyu short ribs with green shallot kimchi, soy glaze and roasted jalapeno puree.
Resume your expedition at the nearby LKF Tower, where another young and talented Aussie, Michael Fox, is applying skills gleaned in stints at Melbourne's Vue de Monde and Cecconi's Cantina to Italian food.
Like Harrison, Fox is winning acclaim with a cuisine that is neither his nor Hong Kong's: theatrical, old-school table service and Frank Sinatra tunes transport you once again from downtown Hong Kong, this time into the world of mid-20th century, NYC "red sauce" Italian.
It's a lost world of generous, expansive dining restored to life in juicy meatballs smothered with tomato sauce and basil, and the top selling dish from Carbone's NYC mothership (Hong Kong is the first outpost): spicy vodka rigatoni. By the time the dessert trolley arrives at your table, you've been eased into genteel gluttony and somehow squeeze in cake by the slice and justify the banana because it's flambeed right there in front of you and where do you even see that these days?
Fox lives here in SoHo and loves its jumble of contrasts. "You can see a Ferrari next to an old lady collecting cardboard boxes for cash; an opulent restaurant where money's no object beside an old guy with a little stall. But somehow it all exists in harmony."
Fox, Harrison and Yu all say they believe Australian chefs thrive on this chaotic mish-mash. They also feel at the centre of things here. "Hong Kong is a fascinating crossroad of cultures, people, and ideas from everywhere," says Yu. "Being a major economic centre and transit point it opens more opportunities. Australia has amazing produce and climate but geographically it's a destination in itself, and that can present challenges."
In return, Hong Kong employers appreciate the diligence and energy of their imports. "Australian chefs bring passion and dedication," says Christopher Mark, co-owner of Maison Libanaise and Carbone. "It appears relaxed, but underneath there's no complacency – utterly professional."
You see this in the fantastical, peacock-themed interior of brand new Ophelia, the latest from Aussie bar tsar James Sutton, in Wan Chai, where his compatriot chef Angus Harrison rustles up tapas infused with influences from his time working with Luke Mangan, Martin Boetz and Eric van Alphen. Order Harrison's chilli whole-school prawns Sichuan salt nam phrik and you'll see why this one's being raved about too.
Then there's James Henry at the neo-Parisian bistro Belon, rustling up simple, sincere French dishes perfected during his first overseas stint in Paris at the renowned Bones; and Brisbane-born Bau La, who kept faith with his Vietnamese heritage and mum's kitchen secrets while honing his trade in Sydney at Mr Wong and Ms Gs with Jowett Yu. He's now been given free rein to unleash that Saigonese ancestry in the fresh, bright flavours of south Vietnam at Vietnamese grillhouse Le Garcon Saigon. Result: another sweet spot for Hong Kong's notoriously hard-to-please foodie set, and another win for Australia's most exportable asset: young, adventurous, definition-busting chefs.
Neighbouring luxury all-suite hotels One96 and The Putman are within easy strolling distance of SoHo's Aussie chef trail, on Sheung Wan's Queen Road Central. All rooms have state-of-the-art kitchens – perfect for a trip where you won't need room service but might want to re-heat some delicious leftovers.
SEE + DO
The Hong Kong Great November Feast is a month-long celebration of food and drink, with tastings and events at restaurants all over the city. See discoverhongkong.com
Amy Cooper travelled with the assistance of the Hong Kong Tourism Board
HONG KONG'S LATEST, GREATEST CAFES
Opened in December 2015, this dinky 22-seat cafe serves artisan coffees and teas together with both savoury and sweet eclairs. 8-12 South Lane, Sai Wan
Inspired by London's historic Winstons coffee shop, this brand new spot serves coffee by day and cocktails at night. Signature: slow grind negroni or espresso martini. Also, don't miss the homemade bottled cold brews. Shop 4, 213 Queen's Road West, Sai Ying Pun
New signature coffee blends, beer on tap, cocktails and ice-cream sandwiches attract Hong Kong's hip set to this beautifully designed space. 8 Wing Fung Street, Wanchai
Five months ago, Tokyo coffee lovers' loss was Hong Kong's gain when this cult coffee shop from Tokyo closed and re-emerged in Wan Chai. Lee Tung Avenue, Wan Chai
THE COFFEE SHOP AT POTATO HEAD
Bali's Potato Head mix of restaurant, coffee shop and lifestyle concept has come to Hong Kong and boasts Japanese import I Love You So Coffee served up in an all-day cafe and bar. Shop 3, UG/F, True Light Building, 100 Third Street, Sai Ying Pun