Unlikely wok stars

In kitsch diners and unlikely districts in Hong Kong, Brian Johnston finds Michelin-star meals for a few dollars.

If you had to guess a likely place for a Michelin-star dining experience in Hong Kong, the shabby Kowloon district of Mong Kok wouldn't spring to mind. It's more closely associated with triads and touts selling fake watches than top chefs. Cantonese pop wails from portable radios in its handbag-hung street markets. Airconditioning units rattle and police sirens wail.

I pass beneath limp lines of washing absorbing the fumes of passing delivery vans and weave between wilted pot plants outside shops crammed with socks and bras. Steam wafts from hole-in-the-wall restaurants serving fish balls and sticks of deep-fried tofu to harried passers-by. In Mong Kok, you eat on little folding seats, knees up around your ears, slurping noodles from pink plastic bowls.

Kwong Wa Street is no different from any other and here I finally spy a squeezed-in restaurant with steamed-up windows and customers loitering outside. This must be it: Tim Ho Wan, the Michelin-starred dim sum shop that has put Mong Kok on the gourmet map.

Normally, Michelin-starred restaurants aren't my scene. I don't eat in places where the eyebrows of Armani-clad waiters twitch at my wine choices. But there's no chance of being ushered outside by a maitre d'hotel with a suave smirk at Tim Ho Wan. I'm given a scribbled number by a harassed woman at the door and shooed into the street.

I sigh and exchange understanding looks with others clutching tickets and inhaling moped exhaust. Taxis honk and my stomach rumbles.

When I finally edge through the door an hour later, I find Tim Ho Wan's no-reservations policy the least of its quirks as a Michelin-starred restaurant. Meals usually cost less than $HK170 ($20). Kitchen paper replaces napkins. There's no San Pellegrino - or any bottled water, for that matter - but you can order Coca-Cola or Sprite, served in the can. And if there are any other Michelin experiences that allow you to chew on a chicken's foot, I've yet to have the pleasure.

Shortly, I'm seated at a laminated table elbow-to-elbow with local diners mowing through steaming stacks of dumplings as if aiming for a Guinness world record. Woks clang in the minuscule open kitchen at the back. Chef Mak Pui Gor is here, lurid in a neon-green shirt, smiling benignly in the hubbub. But there's no time to gawk; the hour's wait doesn't earn me a languid lunch. I've only just circled my choices on a paper menu and the food has appeared.

I start with a dim sum classic: steamed prawn dumplings, the pink prawns blushing beneath translucent rice-paper wrapping. Beef meatballs are infused with mandarin peel and spring onion. And, though I've never held a high opinion of spring rolls, Mr Mak's come hot, crisp and stuffed with fresh vegetables.

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"Special mention can be given to ... the baked bun with barbecued pork. The wait is worth it," my Michelin guide advises. Char siu bau is a Hong Kong favourite. The sugar glaze on these barbecued pork buns makes them slightly crispy and the minced meat is held in an almost caramel-like sauce that has me smacking my lips.

Modest Mr Mak likes to pretend he's just a neighbourhood cook. In fact, he was once the dim sum chef at Lung King Heen, a restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel awarded three Michelin stars - the first Chinese restaurant and one of just fewer than 100 restaurants worldwide to be awarded the ultimate culinary accolade. There was muttering when Tim Ho Wan was awarded a star in 2009 and named the world's cheapest Michelin-starred experience. Was it just a publicity stunt?

Perhaps. But there are other surprises in Hong Kong, too. Yung Kee in Central is famous for its roast goose but has an assembly-line kitchen and a cavernous dining room decorated in Chinese kitsch. It, too, has a Michelin star. And Olala in nearby Wan Chai gets a lip-licking Michelin-man symbol as an "inspector's favourite for good value". The modest noodle shop is run by Mr Chow, who combines a love of Shanghai-style noodles and French cooking to create an haute-cuisine version of classic beef noodle soup. At $HK150, it's a pricey bowl of noodles but a bargain Michelin meal.

Of course, if I were after starched tablecloths and stellar wine lists, my 2010 Michelin guide to Hong Kong and Macau would happily deliver (two restaurants with three stars, eight with two stars, 31 with a star). But I'm aiming to enjoy Michelin-standard cuisine without the cost and formality and Hong Kong is obliging. Do I mind if Olala has wipe-down glass-top tables, plastic chopsticks and a picture of a pig on the wall? Not when my beef melts off the bone and sets my taste buds tingling.

Apparently the faceless Michelin reviewers disregard their surroundings, too. "The decoration, service and comfort levels have no bearing on the award," they claim - which is just as well in Hong Kong. Instead, the guide rates restaurants solely on their food, citing quality ingredients, technical skill, flavour combinations, taste and consistent standards as the criteria.

Just as well, too, in the case of my next choice: Tim's Kitchen, with two Michelin stars. I slide into a purple chair and confront a glittering gold tablecloth and matching napkins. As I wait for my meal, I contemplate odd slogans tacked to the wall. "With cool detachment, let's examine romance," one says. Another invites me to "Drink to the inconstancy of human relationships." Since Tim's Kitchen is BYO - is this another Michelin first? - I nip across the road for a bottle.

Much to my amusement, the hideous decor is matched by inept service. My waiter looks like a street urchin and flings down dishes with remarkable speed, yet shows sluggish indifference to removing them. They lie piled on the table as if reproaching my gourmandise.

But it's the chef that counts. Lai Yau Tim, who was the former executive chef at Hang Seng Bank, focuses on traditional, almost homespun Cantonese fare. Locals flock here for hard-to-find dishes, such as stewed pomelo skins, that remind them of their childhood. I start with thousand-year-old eggs, a choice that makes my waiter blink; they aren't a favourite among foreigners. These are as pungent as ever, cut through with a light ginger flavour. The crab claw on fluffy egg-white steamed in chicken stock is a fine example of subtle southern Chinese flavours. Then I graze on bisque of pork, fish and wood-ear fungus, which I sprinkle with coriander, lime and chrysanthemum petals.

It's delicious but I'm no expert on traditional Cantonese cuisine. Are Hong Kong's Michelin critics? Ten of the 12 original inspectors were European and, when the first Hong Kong guide was published in 2009, many local people questioned whether they properly understood Chinese cuisine. Some claim bias towards European eateries by this venerable French publisher, which has been producing gastronomic guides since 1900 and awarding stars since 1926. Others lament the tendency to award multiple stars to unadventurous restaurants in top hotels.

But Bo Innovation, my choice for a final culinary fling in Hong Kong, is certainly not unadventurous. It's the brainchild of long-haired, tattooed Alvin Leung. Born in London and raised in Toronto, he now baffles and thrills Hong Kongers with his "X-treme Chinese" molecular cuisine. Calling himself the Demon Chef, he thumbs his nose at the city's conservative dining scene, has no culinary training and yet bagged two Michelin stars in the inaugural Michelin guide in 2009. He now has one, but the unorthodox Leung is still only the second self-taught chef in the world (after Heston Blumenthal) to be awarded a Michelin star.

The glass front of Bo Innovation in Wan Chai features a giant black-and-white portrait of Leung sporting his trademark, rock-star dark glasses. Once inside, however, there is nothing but grey-and-black understatement and crisp, snowy tablecloths. Waiters glide about in black suits. One hands me a flute of Bollinger and a degustation menu of improbable length.

Before long, I'm tucking into a Coffin Bay oyster with lime and ginger snow, followed by a smoked quail egg on a nest of crispy taro, topped with caviar and gold leaf.

A dish of ham and winter melon comes with shiitake mushrooms and pine nuts: a sophisticated take on a Chinese classic. It's a lighter, more contemporary interpretation of traditional Chinese cuisine that this maverick chef thinks is lacking in Hong Kong.

This is more the Michelin experience I expect until I peer into the open kitchen. Leung isn't there but his sous-chef - who goes by the moniker Devil and sports a pink mohawk - is working like a mad scientist among liquid nitrogen and floating jelly spheres.

My favourite is just such a sphere, a molecular reinvention of xiao long bao, the renowned soup-filled dumpling from Shanghai. It looks nothing like a rustic dumpling but more like a grape, yet retains the same satisfying, intense explosion of broth in the mouth. My almond-and-hawthorn dessert comes under a cloche which, when lifted, releases sandalwood smoke that recalls the incense of Hong Kong's backstreet temples.

Is it worth a Michelin star or two? It's hard to say but the meal has been a theatrical experience with deliciously inventive food. And when it comes to Michelin dining in Hong Kong, you find the best in the most unexpected places.

Brian Johnston travelled courtesy of Cathay Pacific Airways and the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Cathay Pacific flies non-stop to Hong Kong in about nine hours from Sydney and Melbourne for about $890 low-season return, including tax.

Staying there

Novotel Hong Kong Nathan Road stands amid Kowloon street markets and is a chic and comfortable mid-range property with low-season rooms from $HK1225 ($145). Phone 1300 656 565, see novotel.com.

Four Seasons Hotel is a harbourside hotel that has two restaurants with three Michelin stars (Chinese and French). Rooms from $HK3960 ($466). Phone 1800 142 163, see fourseasons.com/hongkong.

Eating there

Bo Innovation serves innovative molecular cuisine and tasting menus for $HK1408. At 60 Johnston Road, Wan Chai; entrance at 18 Ship Street. Phone +852 2850 8371, see boinnovation.com.

Lung King Heen is a Four Seasons Michelin three-star restaurant, with top-notch seafood and set dinner menus for about $HK1100. At 8 Finance Street, Central. Phone +852 3196 8880, see fourseasons.com/hongkong.

Olala serves premium noodles for about $HK150 at 33 St Francis Street, Wan Chai. Phone +853 2294 0426.

Tim Ho Wan's dim sum and dumplings are priced from just a few dollars. Expect a long wait. Shop 8, 2-20 Kwong Wa Street, Mong Kok, Kowloon. Phone +852 2332 2896.

Tim's Kitchen has a la carte, traditional Cantonese cuisine from about $HK500 a person. Shop A, 84-90 Bonham Street, Sheung Wan. Phone +852 2543 5919, see timskitchen.com.hk.

Yung Kee is a huge, four-storey restaurant specialising in roast goose and barbecued pork. Dinner costs about $HK500. At 32-40 Wellington Street, Central. Phone +852 2522 1624, see yungkee.com.hk.

More information Phone the Hong Kong Tourism Board on 9283 3083, see discoverhongkong.com/australia.

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