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Sun Tung Lok shark fin restaurant – an expensive pile of abalone (3*)

This is a review of Sun Tung Lok (shark fin) restaurant which is now the world’s second 3* Michelin Chinese restaurant. Last week I did a review of the worthy 3* Caprice (French) and thought it would be interesting to do a comparison between it and Sun Tung Lok. In making a comparison one inevitably has to confront a couple of big issues:

  • Michelin madness; and
  • The use of shark fins.
Braised superior shark’s fin soup with egg white and winter melon

Quite frankly that is too much for one review so I’ll save the ecologocial East meets West debate of shark fins for another time.

Michelin – not the food

Fortuitously, this can be blunt. For Michelin to award this 3* status is a slap in the face to every chef and restaurant who has struggled to obtain such an accolade whether in Asia or elsewhere.

Our "chef" for the majority of the courses

The service, the decor, the plating and all those little touches which result in an exalted 3* experience are absent. Nothing at Sun Tung Lok reaches that supposedly hallowed realm.

And whilst it is a bit of a cheap shot this is the first 3* venue I’ve been to where the background music is acoustic versions of movie soundtracks (which is also used by my local massage shop).

However, quite frankly who cares? Such an observation is nothing new. Michelin have been chucking stars out at (admittedly good) hole in the wall dim sum venues in Asia for quite some time. It is trite to say Michelin doesn’t really work outside of Europe and a couple of overly expensive restaurants in the US, Singapore, Japan etc. but Michelin can’t just award stars to imported European restaurants in Asia and still sell guides.

But in the end it is about the food isn’t it? And the question of how good 3* Michelin high level Cantonese cuisine is compared to its French equivalent is far more interesting…

Pan fried live prawns in cheese sauce (with novelty-shaped carrots)

Michelin – the food

Coming to Hong Kong has been an experience. I’ve travelled pretty widely in Asia (and elsewhere) and lived for a long time in one of the world’s truly international cities (London) so I thought I had a handle on Chinese cuisine.

I didn’t.

The use of texture and tastes which are alien to Westerners (think ammonia and century eggs) as well as the sheer variety of Chinese and, within it, Cantonese cuisine, is something you can’t fathom unless you have lived here or are lucky enough to have some familial connection.

Pomelo skin, shitake mushroom, goose web in abalone sauce

Still, really high end Cantonese food is something separate from day to day Cantonese cuisine. It reveres two or three expensive ingredients (abalone, sharks fin, bird’s nest soup etc.) as well as tradition. Innovation is not celebrated in the same way we laud it in Western cuisine. Those who attempt it (Alvin Leung and Bo Innovation) may fall flat on their face with pastiche showmanship.

And Sun Tung Lok is the epitome of high end Cantonese dining. This a restaurant that, although situated in a new location, comes with four decades of history and stories of magnates spending tens of 10,000s of pounds on extravagant meals with abalone being eaten in all of its variations.

So what does it offer to a trainee Cantonese eater?

Wok fried chicken with mixed mushrooms in XO sauce

On my experience, an unimpressive way to spend HK2,000 or (£180) on 6 or 7 quick fire courses of which half were “cooked” in front of us by a waiter with a butane can like some re-creation of a 1970s restaurant. I half expected a duck a l’orange to come out.

So, to a bit of detail on the meal itself then. The price of the various menus at Sun Tung Lok are calculated by reference to how many sharks you want to de-fin and what quality of dried abalone you want to eat. Unsurprisingly we didn’t go for the most expensive set menu as it runs at a lofty HK8,000 per head (£700ish). Though for top class abalone you would pay even more.

Michelin has denied that they gave the 3* to Sun Tung Lok for their sharks fin. Given that the original name of the restaurant has the word shark fin in it and that every menu is centered around shark fin (and abalone) this is a surprising assertion. Especially so given that the other dishes verge on pastiche (but more on that in a bit).

Stewed hand made noodle with mixed pork

Our first course, the sharks fin, was enjoyable. A good broth with the texture of the fin nicely interrupting it. That said this is just a broth which reconstituted dried sharks fin which is, in itself, tasteless. And it was prepared by our waiter. More pertinently I prefered the broth at both Man Wah and Fu Sing.  The other classic abalone based dish with goose feet and web was the only other highlight and was the best I’ve had yet in Hong Kong.

Apart from that we descended into a glimpse of what cuisine in Hong Kong must have been like in the 1950s. It was so uninspiring and dated that it actually drove us to laughter. I’ll only mention one dish – cheese sauce and prawns. Yes, seriously, cheese sauce and prawns in 3* Michelin restaurant or just generally in a restaurant that is meant to be good and is expensive. And this wasn’t anything fancy. This was the kind of crap your parents got “experimental” with back in the 60s. And it came with shaped carrots that looked like they had been stolen from the cheap Thai expat place down the road.

Sponge roll - pah

Tradition is far more important in high level Cantonese cuisine than it is in Western so it might be an answer to say that Sun Tung Lok is a worthy 3* as it is serving timeless, age shall not weary it, cuisine. Except it is not, it is serving dishes from the 1950s that might have good been are now, quite frankly, pastiche.

Moreover, Sun Tung Lok serves Japanese abalone, in a mall in TST, with pressurized butane cans to cook it, in a restaurant full of customers from the Mainland (and London and the US). You drink expensive wines from Europe. There is no possibility for the argument that it is, somehow, timeless.

Cheese and prawns just don’t cut it and the subsequent average dishes didn’t either in a restaurant this rated and for a meal that expensive. Whilst this may be “the” place to get abalone and sharks fin soup I don’t think that makes it a great restaurant. Restaurants and dishes can’t stand apart from progress or rely on one dish. If all you had to do was produce one great dish or source one great ingredient Harrod’s food hall should get 3* Michelin stars. To be a restaurant is to be something more. It is to create, to experiment, to ebb and flow with the tides.  Sun Tung Lok doesn’t do that.

Cashew nut dessert - I prefer Honeymoon Dessert's efforts

Finally, the other thing which is evident from local Hong Kong foodies and those on Chowhound (as well my own experiences elsewhere) is that this review is worthless as a comment on high end Cantonese cooking. Sun Tung Lok is an average, past it, restaurant where you can pour money into the bucket that is abalone and sharkfin. Meals are available elsewhere which have a breadth and a development to them. If you want shark fin and abalone, fine. But I want more.

Quite frankly, shame on you Michelin.

  • Price – HK2,000 for two with little alcohol
  • Shop 4D, Mirimar Shopping Centre, TST, Hong Kong

18 Comments

  1. Kay

    LOL!! accoustic versions of music soundtracks also played at your local massage shop…that had me reelin in peals of laughter.
    Cheese and prawns combo…hhmmm….can’t fathom this either….this is a really good write up….I know where I won’t be headin when next in HK!

  2. I’m always bemused by the popularity of the seafood and cheese combo in HK. I think it’s definitely a HK thing, as I’ve never seen this combo in Guangzhou or elsewhere in China.

    I”ve been to HK seafood restaurants, where I’ve been slightly rude in vetoing my host by insisting on ‘ginger & spring onion’ instead of ‘cheese’, as an accompaniment to lobster!

    • It is so strange seeing that you can barely buy good cheese in hong kong for life or money. Cheese is as foreign a taste as century eggs to westerners yet in display of “modernity” they dump it on fresh fantastic prawns and drown the poor things. Awful.

      I think you made the right (rude) choice!

  3. Very truthful review and precisely to the point. As someone who has only repatrioted back to HK recently, I have been disappointed with Chinese food left and right, with very few exceptions. Whether it is judged on culinary innovation or purely execution related, or a mixture of both. Take for example Dim Sims, to me, this is one of the most popular items not only for locals but for every overseas traveller flying in from China, Japan, Europe or America, Singapore, etc. Its versatile, perfect for sharing in manageable portions, its the Cantonese equivalent of a Stuzzichini or Tapas. And Hong Kong is suppose to be at the top of its game in the world.

    But someone please tell me where within HK can I find a world standards Dim Sim lunch or even a small joint really worthy of a 2-3 Stars Michelin rating? Every local Foodie raves about places like Fook Lam Moon and thinks it is of top echelon quality, the epitome of Cantonese Dim Sim perhaps in the world – I am not sure if you have been recently, but when I went last year my jaws just dropped as it was as normal as the stuff served in a suburban London or Australian Chinese restaurant. The execution was good, but nowhere near perfect, and its $50HKD for a bamboo basket of Har Gau. I still remember when I had yum cha in Tokyo with some Japanese friends and the dim sims there set such a high bar, they all said on the spot they’ll fly over to HK 1 day if dim sims were this good – I was too embarrassed to tell them, the Tokyo equivalent we ate were probably better than what we have to offer here in HK. :(

    Sometimes I think its not purely Michelin’s problem either, its just the overall standards of food that are being dished out and people just accept them. Places like Lin Heung Lau, Kau Kee (beef brisket), aforementioned Fook Lam Moon, or the lastest fad ‘The Chairman’. Whenever I look up their reviews, its inevitably the same Chinese reviewers who gives it top marks, but whenever my group visits there’s a large discrepancy in performance, or should I say it just didn’t suit our palates?

    • I haven’t had a good high level Cantonese meal. Which is kind of amazing. My taste buds aren’t developed enough to properly judge abalone etc. but the more expensive the meal the more average it is.

      It is so strange that this is the way for HK – supposedly one of the food capitals of the world. Why is it possible to get fantastic seriously expensive European (Amber and Caprice – which are think are good even in a Paris context) but not Chinese.

      Though I think I have a plan – TIm’s Kitchen. That is going to solve it all. Still am disappointed that you find the Chairman underwhelming. It is one of the places I have been seriously eager to try. I thought it might be the answer!

      Fook Lam Moon I haven’t been to but I have heard the food quality depends totally on how connected you are. If you are known it is better. As an obvious gweilo I find that more than annoying and really not acceptable for a good restaurant.

      But on a positive note – Tim’s Kitchen… soon. And Manor is meant to be worthy..

  4. Cheese and seafood is not just at home in Hong Kong. Jet down to South America and you will find seafood being murdered in certain countries.
    I think Michelin are just out to sell more books. They don’t give a rats arse about any food outside of Western Europe. But we live in a profit driven world, so expansion = profit.

    • Yeah – almost showing their stupidity, getting the backlash and getting more PR is a good strategy in this wierd press driven world. Retarded.

      I don’t mind cheese and seafood per se – It just better be good. This sucked.

  5. Personally, I think Sun Tong Lok gets a 3 Star is because of the PR Spin it will give out to the public. Do you agree?

    • I think it must be one of two things. Either the reviewer who pushed it to three stars is an abalone fiend. Or, they need a bit of cheap press and another 3* Chinese restaurant which serves shark fin is the way to go.

  6. If memory serves, Michelin awards 3 stars to those restaurants that are so spectacular that they are destinations in themselves, even if one needs to travel halfway around the world to reach them. I haven’t eaten at this place so perhaps it’s unfair for me to comment, but based on your review and pictures, if Michelin deems this place worthy of 3 stars, then Michelin has indeed lost the plot.

  7. London Chow

    Ouch, that must have hurt. I know I would if I fork out a small fortune for a 3* and got those dishes. One thing that I realised from a trip back to Singapore recently is that it’s next to impossible to get equivalent quality that I have encountered in London for the same price. Often you’ll end up paying through the nose and yet disappointed.

    @HK Epicurus,
    Someone told me that the better Cantonese chefs have all migrated to Vancouver and London :) I don’t know how true that is though.

    • I think your friend’s comments about the better Cantonese chefs migrating to Vancouver and London is 50% off the mark. He’s spot on about Vancouver, which incidentally has one of the largest ethnic Chinese populations in the west, mainly consisting of Cantonese HK’ers. But London? I’m not so sure. If they are in town, I’d like to know where!

      I’ve not been to Vancouver but from my personal experience, the best Cantonese food outside Asia is found in Toronto, with Sydney, a close 2nd.

  8. Sharks’ fin and abalone are still pretty big in Mainland China, and considering the number of sales that could mean (especially for the Chinese version of the guide), it might have made STL a top choice… Btw, cheese and seafood – pastiche is so HK – I think I might have mentioned it already, but there’s this diner-ish place called Kuen Fat that does deep fried garoupa fillets (think fish n’ chips) smothered in a cheesy bechamel. Weirdly genius. I guess it’s like putting cheese sauce on top of fried fish. Anyway. I think Kuen Fat deserves some stars, since they’re just dishing them out :P

  9. anna harrison

    i think shark finning is really stupid please email me back thanks you for your time!

  10. Lisa

    Tried Bird Nest soup last year from like http://www.geocities.jp/hongkong_bird_nest/index_e.htm . Tastes really good… yeah, I thought it was gross at first, but wow, you won’t regret it.

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