Somewhere on the steep stone steps between watchtowers in the Mutianyu portion of the Great Wall of China, it occurred to me that touring Michelin-starred restaurants might not have been the best preparation for the Northern Qi dynasty’s defensive version of a stair workout. But when the Mandarin Oriental luxury hotel chain invites you to sample haute cuisine in Hong Kong and Beijing, you use the same tactic as riders on the ingenious toboggan ride down from the wall, or Sheryl Sandberg: Lean in.
Mandarin Oriental sadly left San Francisco in 2015 (when its 11-floor aerie in a Sansome Street skyscraper became the Loews Regency), but its flagship Hong Kong hotel, which overlooks Victoria Harbour, has remained a top attraction since opening in 1963. Central District office workers pop into its Cafe Causette for luscious pastries and light meals; old-school expats patronize its cozy ultra-British pub, the Chinnery; society women swell the ranks of afternoon-tea patrons at Clipper Lounge; and all types pour into the Captain’s Bar for after-work libations with curried snacks and spicy gossip.
The Michelin Guide, which began awarding stars in Hong Kong in 2009, favors two of the hotel’s restaurants: the one-star, Cantonese-themed Man Wah and two-star, French-inspired Pierre. Man Wah chef Wing-Keung Wong is not as renowned as the latter’s Pierre Gagnaire, whose baker’s dozen of restaurants around the globe include his eponymous three-Michelin-star home base in Paris.
Still, I found Wong’s visual artistry matched the elegance of his silk-walled dining room, starting with his beautifully swirled “soup” of steamed and sauteed egg with crab, sea urchin and mini goldfish dumplings. He also has a playful side: Instead of rice, his final savory dish on the seven-course menu was stir-fried orzo, while Chinese petits fours, the second of two desserts, arrived in a birdcage with brightly feathered faux birds.
Pierre has a more contemporary feel to its decor, including a massive chandelier whose crystal fringes compete with the sparkle of Victoria Harbour’s illuminated skyscrapers. Chef de cuisine Jacky Tauvry, a native of Brittany, maintains Gagnaire’s modern Gallic sensibility, although my seafood-themed four-course menu became a bit bland after the starter of pan-seared langoustine with Terre de Sienne spices, rhubarb and green lentils.
West comes closer to meeting East at Amber, the recently reimagined, two-star Michelin restaurant at the more boutique Landmark Mandarin Oriental, connected by a shop-lined skywalk to the mothership. That’s because executive chef Richard Ekkebus, a former protege of Gagnaire, has a fascination with Japanese ingredients such as amadai (tilefish) and sudachi limes; a passion for sustainability (e.g., no sous vide preparations, to reduce plastic use); and a dairy-free, gluten-free approach to his menu.
“I feel lighter when I eat that way,” he noted during one of his customary visits to diners, who are also invited into his gleaming new kitchen for one surprise course.
Ekkebus’ appetizer of homemade silken tofu with heirloom tomatoes, salted sakura and virgin almond oil showed his dexterity with texture and color as well as flavor, mirrored by a dessert that showcased a subtle green spectrum — avocado, lime, Sicilian pistachio, Granny Smith apple and Thai basil — in ice cream and sorbets. The renovated dining room, with its cream-on-cream embroidered silk walls and sinuous table settings, also radiates sophistication.
Just down the hall from Amber is Sushi Shikon, a three-Michelin-star outpost of Tokyo’s similarly lauded Sushi Yoshitake, but since I hadn’t snagged a reservation, I found a much humbler (and cheaper) site for one last meal with Michelin associations: Tim Ho Wan, a bare-bones dimsum restaurant in a nearby subway station. Its original location, which regularly receives one Michelin star, is famed for its baked bun with barbecue pork. The host decided I had ordered too many items, so crossed a few off the paper sheet I was about to hand to my server, but luckily the deep-fried spring roll with juicy shrimp and egg white still arrived.
The next night, at the new, serenely luxurious Mandarin Oriental Wangfujing, Beijing, I was glad I had gone easy on the dim sum. Man Wah’s chef Wong oversees Cafe Zi, the hotel’s pan-Asian restaurant overlooking the Forbidden City. A mushroom-stuffed bun browned to resemble mushroom caps, velvety raw tuna with avocado and crimson-lacquered tofu topped with yellow petals stood out among the kaleidoscopic cuisine.
Trekking around the Great Wall the following day, I felt every delicious ounce of food — and yet after-ward still managed to sample at least half of the traditional 20-course lunch menu at Hua’s Restaurant on Ghost Street. But as my guide from Wild China noted, this is a culture where “How are you?” is often expressed as “Have you eaten yet?” I just needed to learn how to say “Yes, and very well,” in Mandarin and Cantonese.
Traveling in Style
Cathay Pacific Airways offers three daily nonstop flights to Hong Kong from San Francisco and connecting flights to Beijing. Although premium economy seats on its A350 aircraft are very comfortable, book business class to enjoy even more room, plus sumptuous lounges in Hong Kong. cathaypacific.com
Rates at the Mandarin Oriental begin at $509 for the Hong Kong flagship, $466 at the Landmark Hong Kong and $449 at Wangfujing-Beijing. mandarinoriental.com
Jet-setters Weigh in
Elaine Mellis and Mary Beth Shimmon (the pals and SF society swans recently met up in Hong Kong for a few days of shopping and dining!) The best cocktail scene is at Quinary! The mixologists are artists! Quinary is referred to as the el Bulli of cocktail culture. The best shopping is at Shanghai Tang’s flagship store on Duddell Street. And the best place to watch the laser show over the harbor is the InterContinental Hong Kong.
Christian Gollayan (society editor, Hong Kong Tatler) Right now, anyone who’s anyone in Hong Kong keeps talking about Rosewood, the absurdly luxe hotel which opened in April. Even if you can’t book a room during society season (September to January), you can still bask in its opulence at the Darkside, Rosewood’s jazz and cigar lounge. Then, cross the harbor and head over to Cassio, a sleek Spanish restaurant in Lan Kwai Fong that transforms into a buzzy nightclub for beautiful people after hours. Want a taste of home? Go to the American Club with a member — the ultra-exclusive organization in the Central district that was founded in 1925. Order a burger at McKay’s Steakhouse, where Marilyn Monroe reportedly danced on the bar.