Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Western Week and guerrilla dining

In spite of a blog tag that would suggest the contrary, I haven't gotten the whole culture shock thing in Hong Kong, other than the Three-Week Wall. But I've still gotten fatigued with things always being a certain way that I associate with occasional novelty and Jewish Christmas (that is to say, Chinese). To help with this, I declared the week before I left for Cambodia to be Western Week. The theory underlying Western Week was that I would held myself keep a fresh attitude toward Hong Kong by keeping one sector of my life designated as Western: food. As it's worked out, Western Week has basically become Western month.

We've made two trips to High Tea at the Peninsula, a shmancy hotel in Kowloon. The tea is expensive by local standards, though considering my reference point for these things in London, everything seems cheap by comparison. It's a nice experience, and worth doing once, but like so many things in Hong Kong, it's very surface-level. The lobby looks amazing, but there's no way to even put your name on a waiting list, you just stand in line. The waiters are dressed immaculately and half a very formal-looking stick-in-the-ass walk, but they chronically screw up orders, have no idea how to pour tea, forget to use a strainer half the time, and never let the tea seep enough before serving it. The food is exceptionally pretty, but highly inconsistent. I only came back a second to accompany Brian, who was visiting.

I've also become deeply enamored with set lunches in Soho. Many of nicest little restaurants in town are in Soho, and the slate is exceptionally international (off-hand, I can think of French, Italian, Russian, Spanish, Nepalese, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, American, California, Mexican, Cuban, Greek, Moroccan, Lebanese...I can't actually think of Chinese, but it's probably there somewhere). It's generally a bit overpriced for my tastes, but nearly every restaurant in the neighborhood offers a 3-course set lunch every day, with rotating menus, for around HKD $88 (around US $11). Considering that's the price of a martini at most bars in Lan Kwai Fong, it's a damn fine deal, and I am determined to lunch my way through every restaurant on the block.

But my biggest new infatuation is the private kitchen. Private kitchens are unlicensed, unadvertised, multi-course BYOB restaurants offering delicious set menus at prices that range from "good deal for the quality" to "I feel like I'm stealing something." The height of culinary fashion in Hong Kong, we've dubbed the experience guerrilla dining. Our first raid featured a 10-course Sichuan feast (HKD $180, approx. US $23) in a space that looked less like a gourmet restaurant than the living room of the tiny apartment your parents had when they were poor and had no kids back in the 1970s. Pictured right, the enormous bulging vein in my forehead when I absentmindedly bit into a solid pepper in what was already the spiciest dish of a spicy meal (also pictured, Marie laughing at me as I squirm). Emerging battered but triumphant, we turned our culinary war machine on a 5-course French offering that, at HKD $350 (about US $44), included foie gras, steak, and lobster. I'm happy to report no further pepper-related casualties.

At last, I'm starting to settle into a healthy balance between Chinese food and Western food, but the line between what's "local" here and what isn't is so hazy. Hong Kong is nominally Chinese, but if you're a student or a professional on Hong Kong Island, it's just international. A city without a country, a population of white collar transients and expatriates. And between the people here and the people out in the far-flung fishing villages of the New Territories, I don't know who the real Hong Kongians are (note: makin' my way down the list of names of HK residents).

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