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New Asia go-between Kowloon cooks Chinese and more

Email|Print| Text size + By Rob McKeown
Globe Correspondent / September 5, 2004

KOWLOON -- Kowloon is a 4-square-mile peninsula that divides its better-known neighbors China and Hong Kong. Dense, fumy, and laced with neon, its character is akin to the former and yet it shares a special system of governance and British colonial past with the latter. The streets are helter-skelter with foot traffic, and the main drag of Nathan Road bowls past cheap electronic shops, sneaker outlets, noodle vendors, and ramshackle dim sum houses.

For years, Kowloon played the unsavory stepchild to Hong Kong's favored first son, but in the last year, it has begun to boom. At the heart of it all, the Peninsula Hotel, its biggest draw, turned 75. The Pen's swish Sino-accented rooms, gleaming marble-crusted and pillared lobby, and must-do afternoon tea are as busy as ever -- and yet with a fast-changing clientele. Once an Occidental stronghold, it now has demographics that look into the future: a chatty mix of Chinese and Southeast Asians with slowly shrinking groups from the West.

It is this simultaneous embrace of things Chinese, historic, Asian, and yet global that is fueling on-the-rise Kowloon. All around, buildings are either sprouting or sprucing up. One Peking Road is a lithe skyscraper whose metal beams, glassy curves, and sail-like shape nod to the nautical history of the area. The InterContinentalHotel (formerly the Regent) unveiled itself with a glass box of a lobby overlooking Victoria Harbor, lured chef Alain Ducasse to open Spoon, and brought back one of the great haute Cantonese masters for the signature eatery Yan Toh Heen. Indeed, restaurants have become the prime currency in Kowloon. They draw locals, Hong Kong residents sneaking quietly across the harbor (many for the first time), weekending Southeast Asians, and in-the-know tourists. Here are a half-dozen whose mix of elements high and low, traditional and modern, global and local embodies the best of suddenly vital Kowloon.

Hutong & AquaOwners Calvin Yeung and David Yeo (of Shui Hu Ju and Nove in central Hong Kong, and Water Margin in Causeway Bay) have brought personal style and cultural substance back to a Hong Kong dining scene that was flat-out bad -- and threatening to bore -- only two years ago. They've applied the concept of yin and yang to dining with glamorous results on the 28th-30th penthouse floors at 1 Peking Road. Aqua is a triptych of an eatery with a Northern Italian dining room (Aqua Roma) with C-shaped banquettes, under-lighted catwalks, and accents like an 1850s Florentine mirror. A sliver-sized counter (Aqua Tokyo) serves newfangled sushi and the bold Japanese bar food tradition called ''izakaya," and a lofted cocktail lounge (Aqua Spirit) offers views of the Hong Kong skyline through soaring windows.

It is the one-floor-below Hutong, however, that channels the true potential of Kowloon: things modern yet Chinese. Qing Period antiques sourced from old courtyard homes in Zhuhai and Hunan, spare concrete flooring, and elm furniture make for a dramatic reinvention of the traditional Beijing courtyard from which it takes its name. The handwritten menu is full of vigorously flavorful dishes rooting into the food cultures all across northern China. Boned lamb ribs with a soy-chile dipping sauce have a primal meatiness rarely conjured outside a great steakhouse; they also nod to famous Mongolian roasts. A Shandong-style stew has a broth tinged red, crunchy, and pungent with cabbage and other pickled vegetables, and a heat that is almost Korean. Bamboo clams in Chinese rose wine with chili padi are just another example of the wide-ranging prowess of Hutong. The wine list is purposefully short, but the staff is well versed in Chinese rice wines, which come infused with herbs and spices and in artful presentations.

SpoonMichelin chef Ducasse has colonized France, the United States, and even Mauritius. Now, he's out to win over the locals here, where his newest venture, Spoon, opened late last year at the InterContinental. Swank abounds in the Tony Chi-designed space. A shimmering ceiling of Venetian glass spoons and two-story plate-glass windows that gaze onto Victoria Harbor are offset by earth-toned fabrics and murals by artist Judy Ledgerwood. Perhaps the best seats are in the urbane lounge, with sensuous oval banquettes and a leather-topped bar. The menu is a self-professed ''high concept" approach where guests can mix and match proteins, sides, and condiments. Chef Laurent Andre deals in mostly Gallic tastes (brocoletti puree with French caviar and marinated scallops) and the odd North African embrace (pan-seared duck with turnips, orange, and cardamom), but Eastern intrusions are in evidence (green mango salad with garoupa). His best plates, like the sea bass marinated in coconut milk, combine these tendencies. A pity the food was curiously under-salted after the opening, something the management says was done to suit the local palate. There is a wine list to suit the power-player crowd and fabulous desserts like pineapple fritters with a spicy ginger condiment and potted coconut cream. Very pricey.

Wing Kee Roast MeatsIt's hard to spend a day in Hong Kong without licking your lips at least once while passing the many roasteries with their wares of red-tinged pork or golden-skinned chicken hanging in the window. Fight the urge to walk inside for a snack and ferret out Wing Kee instead. Mrs. Kwok, the proprietor and cook, has been drawing hordes to her little stall on the second floor of the Kowloon City fresh market for several decades. Her broad smile, fair skin, and wide-eyed generosity are matched only by the flavor of her ''cha xiu" (marinated roast pork), so rich it will linger on your palate long after you've caught a taxi back to your hotel.

''I take better care of my meat than my children," Mrs. Kwok half-jokes to customers when her son is around. Other vendors would do well to take note. The pork and roast goose and steamed chicken can be eaten with rice on makeshift tables or taken home in bulk as the many regulars prefer.

Yee Shun Milk Co.The Cantonese have a sweet tooth and, unlike many Asians, a love of dairy products (a signature Hong Kong dish is stir-fried crabmeat with milk). Yee Shun caters to both with a come-as-you-are atmosphere that feels not unlike the blue-collar coffee shops of old. A Styrofoam bowl of steamed milk has a texture halfway between a flan and a pudding. One can choose from flavors like almond, ginger, and the earthy-sweet black or red bean. The busy shop turns its tables over with prodigious speed and the people-watching is an insight into New Asia: policemen, old men, punk teenagers, quiet parents with one or two boisterous children, with Thais, Indians, and the odd European all occasional stop-ins. Service is gunslinger-quick and one pays at the register.

Red AntSome cities excel in home-grown cooking; others simply import. This one qualifies firmly as the latter: It has lots of good food, but not much to call its own. Oddly enough, one of the few native strains here is a curious confection known as ''Soy Sauce Western," more or less European dishes stir-fried up or soy-sauced down for the Cantonese palate. The tradition dates to 1860 when Tai Ping Koon Restaurant in Causeway Bay (still serving) was founded. Now the concept is enjoying something of a renaissance at the original Red Ant (with multiple locations) just behind the Peninsula Hotel. They serve a naturally fused comfort food that, thanks to the good product and execution, is more fun than ever. Sea snails come piping hot in a Macanese-style sauce that's all chili gusto. There is a sort of Sino-spaghetti in which the Italian noodles are stir-fried with ground pork, soy sauce, and eggplant. And there is even a baking dish of shiitakes bathed in gravy and mixed with rice. This will never qualify as high-end or revolutionary cooking, but it is the coolest casserole experience I can remember. Indeed 2003 may well be remembered as the year ''Soy Sauce Modern" was born.

Yan Toh HeenHaute Cantonese is regarded by many aficionados as the pinnacle of Chinese cuisine, and a small but revered group of master chefs are standard-bearers of the tradition. They are found most easily in five-star hotel kitchens and, when they move, so do their legions of fans. Chef Cheung Kam Chuen first came to fame in 1980 at the Regent Hotel but left in 1999, and he has recently returned to the same space, now known as Yan Toh Heen in the InterContinental. Wielding the classic principle of wok chi (preserving the natural flavor of ingredients through the application of pure techniques and intense blasts of heat) with precision, his cooking is also earthy, naturally sweet, and powerful. Signatures include stewed white eel with garlic and bean curd sheet; sauteed Chinese chives with diced shrimp and flounder; and deep-fried garoupa with pine nuts and pickles. The room is a bland, pink and gray-toned affair where sedate lends focus to the food and, also, to a vaunted collection of jade tableware that is kept under special locks between meals. Lunch hour, when soft light comes in off the harbor and suited captains of industry mumble nearby, is a great time to graze on delicate dim sum tastes like steamed asparagus dumplings.

Rob McKeown is a freelance writer in Asia.

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