Asia

Tin Lung Heen, Hong King

Hong Kong is a city punctuated with sky scrapers. From the ground they pierce the horizon like needle points, each a place of work or home for people who don’t mind not having a garden. The highest of these concrete high points is the ICC tower, ninth tallest building in the world, to be found via a maze of ground level building sites that will one day be the new financial district. The top floors of the building belong to the very swish Ritz-Charlton hotel, itself home to this afternoons lunch at the two Michelin star Tin Lung Heen, which must be the highest starred restaurant on the planet. It’s trivial, of course, and the height should hardly matter, but there can be few places on the planet where the view is quite as spectacular.

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The restaurant is a pretty one; ornate and comfortable, elegant and demure. Tables are dressed in thick white linen, spaced well apart over the thick cream carpet. There are flourishes of red that cut through the glossy black walls, whilst the back wall is reserved for Chinese wines and sakes for those whose budget is non-existent. Indeed, this is a place to splurge; we had to search the wine list for a bottle under £75.00 and held our breath when the bill showed mineral water to be £11.50 per bottle. Those dining here come for Catonese food with the most precious of ingredients – they do not come expecting a bargain.

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We start with two dim sum: Excellent cuts of Iberico pork shoulder, barbequed to a dusty pink and glazed  with honey, are stunning – the meat dissolving on the tongue without any effort.  The other was a steamed dumpling with dried scallop, fish maw (dried bladder, if you really want to know), and shrimp.  It was the taste of the sea if the sea had curled up and died, all wrapped up in a soggy polythene casing.  This won’t be the first time that I say this, and I am sure this was exactly how it was supposed to be prepared, but it wasn’t for me.  The flavour was too stagnant, the texture too alien.  It was lost on me, and I’m quite happy for everyone to know that.

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My face said it all on the next course.  A murky soup with lumps of boiled pork shin so grey they could have passed for British summertime, with winter melon of no distinct taste and more of the dried scallop.  There was dried longon, a bit like lycee, which added the faintest of acidity.  It was not nice and none of us got close to finishing it.  Our waiter, the brilliant and affable Leo, tried his best by offering an alternative soup, but by now we just wanted to move on it from it all.

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We moved on to accurately cooked scallops, with souffled pastry pieces and a finely chopped salsa of green onion and ginger.  On the other side of the plate was Chinese kale, which tasted a lot like tenderstem broccoli, and pine nuts.  The precision of all the elements was two star cooking; the veg precisely prepared and cooked, the scallops with a gently caramelised crust.  It was just dull.  Nothing slapped you around the chops or gave you a hug. The morsels of duck that followed were so tender that canines nor molars were required to work, sat in a deeply flavoured black bean sauce to which we piled in rice full of interest with bits of goose, abalone and shrimps.  Lovely, yes, though hardly two star worthy.

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We finish on a dessert that would divide the table.  A set milk cream (panna cotta, if you so like), with a gelatinous peach compote and a fat slice of black truffle.  Whilst my dining companions hated the way that the truffle bullied its way through the dessert, perfuming the milk and overpowering the peach, I actually quite liked it and ended up with three lots to eat.  The honeyed bit of pastry on the side was a nice sweet note to end on, the over set grapefruit jelly less so.

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I’d read a bit about the dubious nature of Michelin in Hong Kong prior to my trip and this meal confirmed pretty much all I read as true.  Maybe I’m wrong, but nothing struck me as truly two star cooking.  Yes, its precise and yes they use luxury ingriedients, but many of those ingredients added nothing to the meal other than an increased cost.  Maybe it’s me and my uncultured western palate.  We indulged a little in the wine list and left with a hefty bill that quickly soared into the hundreds.  For that we had the loftiest of views in a lofty city and a distinctly average meal that left me feeling a little cold all over.

5/10

Romdeng, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s capital, springing back from its horrific past to become a wonderful city, rich with culture and tinged with a Western edge from the dollars spent by rapid tourism growth. More bijou than the vast capitals of it’s South-East Asian neighbours, it is a walkable city; the couple of kilometres on the river bank from the night market to the Palace lined with bars and restaurants, ranging from traditional Khmer cuisine to French restaurants that touch on previous empires, to Irish bars. There is always an Irish bar, wherever on the globe you may be.   It is possibly the most hospitable place I have ever been.  Phnom Penh, that is.  Not the Irish bar.

But Cambodia is also a relatively poor country, one that turns over a large proportion of its money from agriculture and is still playing catch-up with much of the world. With this comes a sector of poverty, and with poverty comes exploitation.  Children are being taken away from the education to provide income via other means; begging, or worse.  The Tree Alliance is a charity organisation which focuses on these at risk children, providing them with skill-set training to progress in life.  They have a beauty parlour in Phnom Penh and two restaurants.  Much more is happening outside the city and further afield in other countries, each with similar issues.  The Tree Alliance are good guys.  They do good work.

 

Of their two restaurants in Phnom Penh we opt for Romdeng, a smart colonial building five minutes walk from the palace.  It still feels like it could be someone’s home; a large outdoor terrace weaves around to the swimming pool, which we were sat at the edge of.  Inside there is a small charity shop and vast areas dining areas, upstairs and down.  Every table is full on a warm Sunday night.

The menu is traditional Khmer and we start with deep fried duck spring rolls, greaseless, but with a ratio of too much pastry to the filling.  A dip of tamarind and honey was the star, all sweet and sour and sticky.

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Amok is the national dish of Cambodia, a fish curry similar in profile to a Thai yellow curry, only steamed in a banana leaf to a custard consistency.  Amok is on every menu and we tried plenty during our trip, with Romdeng the best we found.  The chunks of catfish were accurately cooked, the slightly muddy flavour of the fish masked by the vibrant sauce of lemongrass, galangal, and lime.

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From the meat section comes crispy strips of pork belly, mercifully light on the advertised five spice, stir fried with onions, red pepper, whole cloves of garlic and green peppercorns.  The cooking was faultless; the meat tender, the vegetables still retaining a little bite.  A stir fry of beef with less successful, though only down to meat which was on the chewy side.

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We choose to take liquid desserts in the form of frozen cocktails and very good they were, too.  The bill, with a good amount to drink, fails to hit twenty pound a head despite our best efforts.  We ate at Romdeng very earlier on in our trip and it would transpire that better food was to be had elsewhere.  This isn’t the point of course, which remains that in those kitchens are youngsters being given a better chance at life.  Our server couldn’t have been more helpful, despite his obvious youth – he genuinely deserved the tip we left (all of it shared amongst staff).  If you ever find yourself over this part of the world you could do far worse than search out a Tree Alliance restaurant.  I personally can vouch for the quality to be found at Romdeng.  Like I said, they are good guys.  They do good work.

7/10