Jun Yakitori

About

There are surprisingly few proper yakitori restaurants in Hong Kong. Places like Sapporo Ramen and Watami offer it as well as other things, and others do full on barbecue, but there’s not many dedicated to the little barbecued skewers. Which is why I was so eager to try Jun Yakitori when I read it was one of the best yakitori restaurants in the city.

The restaurant feels like one of those hidden backstreet restaurants you get in Tokyo. Entering through swinging wooden doors, you step into a slightly gloomy, tavern-like interior. There are small wooden tables and writing scrawled over the lumpy clay walls. To one side is a bar counter behind which a woman busily tends to skewers on the hissing grill, sending smoky smells wafting through the room.

The slightly confusing menu has a wide selection of meat, fish and vegetable skewers to be grilled, costing from about HK$20 upward. We started with a few chicken skewers. The ‘Chicken With Long Onion’ turned out to be small pieces of meat interspersed with pieces of leek. These were nicely cooked so the leek was just lightly charred and still had a freshness and crispness, while the meat was well grilled to leave it with a smoky and succulent taste. Unlike many satay skewers, which have very chewy and fibrous bits of chicken, these were pleasingly soft. A few pieces were perhaps a little too salty, but it was a promising start.

Next came skewers of Chicken skin that looked depressingly small and shrivelled on the plate, but made up for their size with the flavour they had – indulgently fatty and juicy. Following these where a couple of chicken heart skewers which had wonderfully soft and smooth texture and had been done in a way that really brought out meat’s potent flavours.

The dried mushroom skewers were somewhat disappointing. While they had the nice woody flavour typical of these big brown mushrooms, the grilling had dried them out and they really could have done with a bit more moisture – their lack of juiciness contrasting with all the pieces of meat. Quail egg skewers were better though, coming garnished with strands of seaweed that contrasted nicely with the smooth creamy white of the eggs.

Then came the highlight – a wonderfully cooked piece of grilled saba (mackarel). The fish’s skin was beautifully charred and blistered by the grill, leaving it tasting really moreishly salty and smoky. Its crispness contrasted perfectly with the soft white fish flesh inside, the flakes of which were all infused with a subtle smoky flavour. I felt like I could easitilyorgo the rest and come here just to eat this dish.

To finish off, we had a roasted rice ball with cod-roe inside. This was also really excellent.The big plump grains of pearl rice round the outside a nice golden colour and deliciously cirspy, while the rice around the roe stayed soft and perfectly cooked.

The portion sizes of a lot of the dishes here are admittedly quite small. But this is made up for, in my opinion, by the quality of the cooking and ingredients. This is definitely a good place to come to have yakitori.

Directions

33A Hillwood Road, Tsim Shah Tsui, Hong Kong
+852 2311 9291

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Hunan Garden Restaurant

The large dining room of Hunan Gardens looks impressively grand and historical, with wood paneled walls bearing large oil paintings, white pillars, and big chandeliers hanging down from the ceiling above. It’s all fake, of course. The restaurant’s actually high up in the anonymous, modern sleekness of one of Times Square’s towers. But once sat at one of the elegantly laid tables, it’s not too hard to suspend disbelief and feel you are actually in a magnificent colonial mansion.

The menu is equally decadent, with a good twenty pages worth of Hunanese, Sichaunese and other Chinese dishes including exotic items like frog and shark’s fin and numerous others bearing large price tags.

Our Hong Shao Rou (Red Braised Pork Belly) had meat that was nice and tender with flesh that showed none of the dryness or stringiness it can still have at some places. The large top pieces fat were juicy and slightly sweet tasting. But the pieces of meat didn’t really have that rich and potent flavour that slow cooking can given them. They lacked the fragrant notes of the chinese rice wine they are braised in and didn’t have even the slightest tingle from the chilies, which I felt could almost have been added to the dish at the end here. I also thought that the sauce was just a tiny bit on the thick side, not so much as to make it really gloopy, but still a little heavy. Overall, though, the delight of eating such luxuriantly soft, fatty pork won through these slight limitations in its taste.

The Rice Crackers And Shrimp In Tomato Sauce used fresh, whole tomatoes and the sauce still had some only partially broken down pieces in it. This made it wonderfully fresh tasting. The puffed rice crackers soaked up this bright, healthy feeling sauce. The crackers had a crispness to them with contrasted with the soft smooth texture of the shrimp in a really satisfying way. This combination of ingredients in this dish, with cool fresh vegetables and light tasting seafood, felt very different to most Chinese dishes I have had in the past. In my opinion, it was something that worked really well.

We also had Chicken With Walnuts In A Broad Bean Sauce. This presented a really satisfying contrast of textures, between the spongey pieces of chicken breast and the crisp pieces of knobbled walnut. It was a combination that worked brilliantly. That said, I agreed with one of my companions who felt that the ratio of walnuts to chicken leant too much towards the former. The nuts tended to clump together because of the sticky sauce, forming big clusters that were less pleasing to eat. The sauce itself was good however. Often I have found that the pungent taste of broad bean sauces is a bit overpowering, but here it was nicely restrained, with just a little bit coating the meat and nuts and helping to sort of lubricate the dish.

The Sei Gwai Dáu (Green Beans With Minced Pork) were also very good. The beans were cooked nicely al dente, so that they still had a crisp bite to them which added to their fresh taste. They were just lightly scatter with flavourful pieces of mince pork, unlike in some restaurants where there is a huge heap of very bland meat.

Overall, I feel that Hunan Garden offers above average food which just about matches its mid-range prices. While some of the dishes fall down in certain aspects, and are not as good as those you would get in a higher end place or a private kitchen, they all show some real care in their cooking and exhibit some really interesting tastes and textures. Hunan Gardens is a good place to try a wide range of different Hunanese and Sichuan food and feel confident you are getting close to the real thing.

Directions

13F Times Square, 1 Matheson Street, Causeway Bay

Hing Kee

Last night we went to Hing Kee, a much praised restaurant doing Bo Jai Faan or claypot rice that’s tucked in a grimy backstreet behind the tourist thronged Temple Street Market. The restaurant’s popularity, and the ongoing buzz about it on openrice, meant that as usual there was a long line of people waiting outside. They have a lot of tables in different shops round the area, though, so the queue moved pretty quickly.

But does Hing Kee’s food actually live up to all the hype it gets? Bo Jai Fan’s combination of rice and meat cooked in a clay pot is fairly simple, unpretentious, and hearty in style. So there’s not much a restaurant can really do to distinguish itself in terms of fancy cooking techniques or ingredients. But Hing Kee sets itself apart from other Bo Jai Fan restaurants by getting this basic combination absolutely spot on.

Our beef clay pot came with a big pile of succulent strips of beef laid on top of the rice, contrasting with a lot of restaurants which are really miserly with their meat. We broke an egg over the dish and the white soaked down into the rice, cooking as we mixed it and covering the grains with a fluffy eggy tasting coating that made the rice really hearty and heavy. This savoury egg coated rice combined well with the more juicy strips of beef mixed in with it.

Our second pot was chicken and Chinese mushrooms laid over rice. The small pieces of on the bone chicken were impressively juicy – the method of cooking perhaps allowing them to keep a lot of moisture so that they hadn’t dried out at all. The meat’s soft creaminess went well with the more earthy and fibrous texture of the dark Chinese mushrooms used.

The smoked fish and pork pot also had a nice balance of different flavours. Big pieces of silver skinned fish were laid on top of the rice. The dry, coarse flesh of this had a really striking and powerful flavour – salty and fishy and smoky all at once. Its intenseness was nicely softened, though, when eaten with a soft slice of the pork or some of the rice. Strips of ginger also added a really nice sweetness.

With all Bo Jai Fan, the rice at the bottom goes a crispy brown as it cooks against the side of the pot. It can be really nice to scrape up pieces of this crisped browned rice, that have a great crunchy taste. Here we did get some perfectly crisped rice, although some of it had also turned a little bit too black to be edible. For the clay pots to be absolutely perfect, it would be good if they weren’t burnt on the bottom at all, but that might be asking a bit too much.

Along with the clay pots we also had ho beng, or deep fried oyster omelette. This was perfect. In some restaurant’s the omelette is too thick and just the outside is fried and crispy, leaving a stodgy mess of uncooked egg and oyster inside. But here the tangled strands of egg were all nicely crisp and brown with just a thin layer of soft egg in the middle. Often I also find places use too many oysters, so these completely overpower things, but here they were nicely restrained, with just a few of the juicy oyster held in the crispy casing and plenty of spring onion mixed in too. Added to this, the omelette was really dry and crisp, with none of the soggy oiliness that some can have. It had clearly just been made and tasted fantastic.

So overall, I would say that Hing Kee definitely lives up to the praise it’s been given and is well worth the half hour or so you’ll have to wait. While other restaurants around do also serve fairly decent bo jai fan, many of them slip up on a few elements of the dish, while here you can enjoy clay pots that are almost exactly the way they should be.

Directions

Raku-En

About

I’m writing this quite a while after going to Raku-en and am not able to remember too much detail about the separate dishes we had. But the quality of the Okinawan food offered here made me want to write at least a short listing to be updated on a second visit.

Hidden away at the top of a tower, this place specialising in Okinawa style Japanese food felt authentic the moment we stepped in. Japanese magazines and other items crowded the front counter, sake bottles lined the walls, and all the tables were already filled by excited groups of young Japanese.  It’s one of several Causeway Bay based hideaways for Hong Kong’s Japanese community.

The menu had a massive range of small plate dishes ranging from about HK$40 to 70. I am fairly new to Okinawan food, so was fairly bewildered a choice of dishes that stretched from stuffed fried chicken wings all the way to snapper carpaccio.

The pork belly in miso had beautifully soft pieces of meat which melted in your mouth, their small layers of fat adding a richer buttery hint to the taste. Each spongy piece has soaked up the sauces stronger flavours and let these drift sumptuously out as you chewed.

Fried chicken sunk into a pile of crumbled bread and garlic and chilli also tasted great. Each crisp piece of chicken would gather up so of this pile to add to the crisp flavour of the skin. Both this, and the skewers, were ‘snack style’ dishes prepared excellently and with extra elements.

The stuffed chicken wings were another example of this. With the bones taken from the middle of the meat, little fleshy white pockets were filled with a pasty stuffing. This was sealed in a wonderfully crisp skin that was perfectly fried to fill it with taste whilst keeping it from being to charred or oily.

Almost all of the other dishes we had followed a similar trend – full of flavour and with meticulous attention to detail. The cod showcased as well as anywhere I have been in Hong Kong the Japanese ability to prepare fish in a very simple way that brings out all of its flavours.

Overall, Ruku-en is a great place to go to explore Okinawan cuisine and to try a wide range of different dishes. I felt confident that the things I was eating were genuine and that whatever I ordered it would be well prepared and offer something interesting.

Directions

12 F Circle Tower, 28 Tung Lung Street, Causeway Bay

Website

http://www.rakuen.com.hk/

Cost

About $40 to $80 per dish.

Shanghai Lane

About

I was a bit uncertain about Shanghai Lane as we walked in. The large black and white photos of Old Shanghai, the neat soy sauce pots on each table, and the smartly uniformed waiters all felt very packaged. I imagined other identical restaurants being set up by the company across the city and feared the food would taste equally indistinct. Overall though, while not that remarkable, the restaurant offered solid Shanghai food at lower prices.

The ‘braised pork belly with bean curd knots’ (HK$50) had fatty cubes of meat that were pleasingly tender, but didn’t melt sumptuously in your mouth like the best braised pork can. The meat was soaked in a sauce which felt a little thin, potent with Chinese rice wine but lacking more subtle flavours. In comparison the dark sauce of Xiao Nan Guo’s ‘red braised pork’ is thicker and loaded with hints of liquorish and cinnamon that it has absorbed through the long cooking process and make it really exciting to eat. The dish is twice the price at Xiao Nan Guo, but I’d probably rather pay the extra for these more stimulating flavours that really enhance the meat.

I was hesitant to pay HK$68 for fried noodles when some you can get them for half the price elsewhere. Shanghai Lane’s ‘fried noodles with shrimp, chicken and ham’ warranted the higher price though, reminding me more of pasta dishes in finer Italian restaurants than the oily ‘chau mihn’ of a lot of local cha chaan tengs. The noodles were just lightly brushed with oil, which enhanced rather than smothered their own fresh, slightly floury taste. The shrimp and chicken had also been handled delicately so the frying just lightly cooked them and brought out the strong seafood and tender white meats flavours. Together the noodles and shrimp offered really soft, yet enticing tones that were very enjoyable.

The siu lung bau (dumplings with pork and soup inside) followed the trend of being good whilst not really blowing me away. The dumpling wrapper was thin and tasted fairly freshly made, free from that chewy, micro-waved texture that often marks cheap dumplings. But the wrapper still didn’t have the homemade texture of the best dumplings, and the soup inside was a little bland, lacking those soothing brothy flavours which explode out of the best siu lung bao. Again, Xia Nan Guo offers better dumplings, as do many of the higher end dim sum places in Hong Kong.

If you’re hungry and looking for decent Shanghai food at a low price then Shanghai Lane is definitely worth a visit. Some of the more special braised dishes like the ‘sea cucumber’ or ‘pigs trotter’ might also offer something a bit more special, though I’m yet to try these. If you want more stimulating Shanghai food though, it’s probably worth paying a little bit more to head over to Xiao Nan Guo or somewhere else.

Directions

35-37 Gough Street, Central, Hong Kong Tel: 2850 7788

Notes

Open from 11:30 a.m. until 11 p.m.

Cost

Around HK$50 a dish, Dumplings HK$15-35 with some ‘chef’s recommendations’ for up to $200

Yachiyo

ramen

 

About

I’d walked past this place quite a bit. It’s tucked away in On Wo lane, just behind Wellington Street in one of my favourite semi–hidden areas of the island. There are host of Japanese restaurants around the intersection of Aberdeen, Gough, Cage and Wellington streets, and I’m yet to really weed out the good from the bad. Yachiyo is definitely good.

A Japanese friend had also given Yachiyo his seal of approval, based on the fact that the noodle company he works for supplies them. The ramen here had an amazingly soft texture, melting in your mouth as you ate them and spreading a rich buttery flavour. They are the type of noodles you could eat unadorned and really enjoy.

Here though, the ‘spicy miso’ ramen I had came wonderfully presented in a bright red broth scattered with different additions. The soup really was exceptional, with a deep and hearty miso flavour just piqued by the right amount of spice. Its texture was especially satisfying. While not at all gloopy, the loaded flavours gave it a thickness so different from the tired, watery broths in a lot of places. I’m told this is because, instead of using a soup base, the chef here spend about six hour boiling down fish and other ingrediants into his own broth. 

Scattered into this broth are a liberal amount of other seasonings. Taking your chopsticks you can pull together the bits of seaweed, pickles, ginger and even strange very soft boiled egg, mixing all these with the noodles to further add to the depth of the flavours.  Although these ramen aren’t cheap, they are definitely worth the extra cash for the attention given to their preparation.

The restaurant does a range of ramen, a couple of cold noodle dishes, a few snacks like gyoza and fried vegetables, and Japanese ice cream. The beer and sake are reasonably priced and would go well will a bowl of spicy noodles. Worth checking out.

Directions

8 On Wo Lane (Kan U Fong), Sheung Wan

Price

$60 for a bowl of Ramen, $28 for 8 Gyoza

Notes

Open on Mon – Sat 12pm to 3pm and 6pm to 10pm.

Tel: 2815-5766

Hometown Dumpling

About

There are a few places dotted around Hong Kong Island doing good homemade noodles and dumplings, particularly Wang Fu in Soho, the two different Dumpling Yuan’s in Soho and Sheung Wan, and a place in Sai Ying Pun near the Chong Yip shopping centre.

You see them with all with trays laid out in the evening, rapidly stuffing filling into neat dumpling and lining them up row after row. All of these places are good basic fare rather than anything fancy, with prices to match.

Hometown has a better range of dumplings than most , with a lot of steamed buns and xiao lung bao on offer too.  Unlike Dumpling Yuan or Wang Fu, its menu is fairly limited to dumpling and a few different types of noodles though. If you’re not looking for either of these then you should probably go elsewhere.

Based on quality of dumplings alone, I’d say Hometown places near the top of the list. The Beijing lamb dumplings I had melted in my mouth with wrappers that were wonderfully buttery. The lamb stuffing had a really distinctive earthy flavour, and oozed succulent juice. 

The whole package tasted really freshly made, and massively better than the defrosted dumplings you get in so many places now.  

Directions

102 Caine Road, Mid Levels, Hong Kong

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Price

About $30 for bowl of dumplings and noodles, $30 for 12 dumplings, $10 for a steamed bun, $10 for plain noodles.