In the small lobby of a tall Hong Kong hotel, the front desk clerks practically sit in each other’s laps. When asked for the restaurant, a clerk gestures toward a wooden door that could easily be mistaken for a cloakroom but is actually the entrance to the seven-seat Sushi Yoshitake, one of Hong Kong’s smallest Michelin stars.
Canadians—with no Michelin-starred restaurants to speak of—tend to think of the French tire brand’s guidebooks as the pinnacle of not just quality but price, glamour and exclusivity. But in Hong Kong, it’s not uncommon for starred restaurants to seat guests on foot high plastic stools while serving bowls of heavenly congee.
At the unfussy one-star Tim Ho Wan, I paid about $6 for soft sugared barbecue pork buns, tender steamed shrimp dumplings and perfectly crispy pork dumplings. The decor resembled an Asian diner, and patrons were encouraged to wash their bowls and chopsticks in hot tea before food was served. (They were clean of course, but at cheaper places, diners ritually sterilize things to be sure.)
The two-star Sushi Yoshitake isn’t cheap—tasting menus run upward of $350—but it’s incredibly simple. The room is about the size of my childhood bedroom, a single row of seats functioning as an audience for the two chefs. The chopsticks are disposable. The food is not: tender octopus chunks brushed with sweet soy, red snapper flash boiled in sake, and bonito lightly smoked over charcoal.
In recent years, Hong Kong has been adding more and more Michelin stars to its dining roster. As of 2013, there are 68 starred restaurants, closing the gap on cities like Paris (with 82). Whereas some critics see a brazen attempt to gain favour in new markets, others see a refreshing focus on food. It’s easy to be seduced by innovative lighting, attractive wait staff and hand-painted murals. (One friend described to me a recent meal in Beijing where the salad course involved tending her own vegetable garden.) But it has also become a distraction from good, simple food.
“In Hong Kong, popular restaurants are able to serve many people a day with delicious, perfectly cooked dishes using inexpensive ingredients,” says Michael Ellis, Michelin’s international director. “Gastronomy [in Asian cultures] is not a question of purchasing power; whatever their incomes, people love eating out often. Thus, chefs have elevated relatively modest foods to a very high level.”
Denny Ip, a local restaurant consultant, met me at the small, Michelin recommended Yat Lok. (Plastic tables, mirrored walls, plastered with pink menus.) Over pork wontons served in a perfect broth fragrant with fresh spring onions, he says that, “in Hong Kong, there’s a different way of thinking about food.” He pauses for a bite of crisp, tender goose dipped in homemade plum sauce. “If it’s bad, it’s bad, and if it’s good, it’s good. No one cares about the chandeliers.”
Most Michelin stars, by city
Three star: 15
Two star: 58
One star: 214