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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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?
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).
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.
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.
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