Tuesday, 20 August 2013

A Hidden Gem in Hong Kong: Dim Sum at Maxim's

Hong Kong is a big, wonderful, bewildering place of many contradictions. During its time under English rule, the population resolutely stuck to their own language, eschewing English. Yet today, the English road names prevail. The modern buildings have the latest technology, but in a quiet corner you will find a hidden shrine for ancestor worship. The ultra-new luxury cars on the road make way for the old "Ding Ding" trams, ferrying people around for peanuts. It hustles and bustles most of the day, but if you've seen Chungking Express, it can still be a place of heartbreaking loneliness and isolation, where you are surrounded by people, yet know no-one.

When I visited China, I promised myself a few days in Hong Kong. It was one of those places that fascinated me as a child, and was close to the top of my "bucket list". I've been obsessed by films and books showing different elements of its psyche from the martial arts classics, Le Carre's The Honourable Schoolboy to the Infernal Affairs trilogy. 

Hong Kong is a great place for good food. Mainly inhabited by people who are ethically Cantonese, it is a place to dig into this sophisticated cuisine. There are many excellent places to eat, some of which are Michelin starred, proving that their contribution to international gastronomy is recognised worldwide. 

Food is always an important part of any experience of travelling abroad. For me and Him Indoors, it becomes a great quest of finding the best food we can, across all possible levels; street food, bars, informal places, and the more august "fine dining". We ask for recommendations, search blogs and scour guidebooks or restaurant guides for the best intelligence we can get our hands on.

I have already confessed to a deep love of Dim Sum. To me, it is a brunch made in heaven. So one treat I was banking on having was lots of lovely little parcels of joy in my time in Hong Kong! But where was I going to go to have these delectable bijou treats? 

I was very fortunate to get a special tip from my future brother in law. He worked out in Hong Kong for a time. He is a keen cook and a food fan whose adventurous streak and refined palate makes his recommendations incredibly reliable. He told me to make sure I went to Maxim's for Dim Sum, that it was located in the City Hall and then came the ominous follow up words "...and make sure you get there as soon as they open."

Most tourists are not about to venture to the City Hall for sightseeing. The Harbour, Star Ferry, the Lantau Island Buddha and Mid-Level Travelators are the places of interest. So I didn't know what to make of his caution. But, having relied on his advice before, I decided to go along with it....

We arrived at 11am, just as they opened the doors. We got shown straight away to a table. There were a few people, but no hordes. We wondered about the advice we were given. Putting it momentarily out of our minds, we focussed on the main objective; dim sum!

We were brought a steaming hot pot of green tea, the traditional accompaniment to a Dim Sum brunch. The ritual of enjoying Dim Sum with tea as a brunch is referred to by the locals as "Yum Cha". At the risk of using a corny turn of phrase, I certainly think it's "Yum"!

We then started thinking about what to eat. The menu listed a number of delights.... But really, you don't come here to peruse the menu. That is besides the point.

So why is Maxim's a hidden gem? Well, to begin with, it's the old school approach to serving up. No order taking, delay and then your food arriving on a tray. Here we have the legendary old style Trolley service! 

Trollies containing only a few varieties of Dim Sum emerge from the kitchens. There are several trollies, each carrying different specialities. They are all insulated to keep the goodies warm, and carefully wend their way around the gargantuan dining space. 

Not sure what to have? Dim Sum novice? Ask the kindly servers and they'll show you the delights the trolley bears, removing the steamer lids with a small flourish. Voila! - har kau! Voila - steamed buns! Want it? Take it! Don't want it? Never mind, back goes the lid, and back to the warm confines of the trolley. Someone will devour them soon enough!

When you've picked something, the server will stamp a little stamper for the relevant dish onto a little card on your table; like playing Dim Sum bingo. 

This is the baked puff pastry buns stuffed with Char Siu pork and topped with sesame seeds. The pastry is fluffy and crumbles as you bite to give way to sticky, spicy, sweet and slightly chewy pork. 

These are Chiu Chow style dumplings, stuffed with vegetables and peanuts. The dumpling skin is thin and perfectly balanced against the content and texture of the filling. The peanuts give a special flavour and bite to the filling.

I recommend these Shanghai style dumplings to anyone who may not have tried them before. They are clever little things. A stock broth is jellified, and put into the loosely wrapped dumpling along with the regular filling. It is steamed, and the application of the heat causes the jelly to melt. What you then have is a dumpling which can’t be eaten immediately (or you may scald your tongue!), but when you do chomp into its interior, you get dumpling skin, meaty filling and soup all in one massive flavour hit!

After our first couple of treats, which we ate in rapt concentration, hardly looking up from our table, we looked around the restaurant. Half past 11 and the place was full. By midday, there were queues of people waiting for a table. Local neighbourhood workers, family groups, City Hall workers, people who've made the journey especially, all waiting patiently to sample the simple joy of these little bites. 

These are the famous chicken's feet. They are steamed in sauce, skin and all. There isn't a whole lot of meat on chicken's feet; you are eating them for their texture, the fun of the chewy skin and crunchy gristle. Like a black bean flavoured chewing gum. I like them and have had them in London before, but they are not everyone's cup of cha. 

This is the Cheong Fun which is a rice flour tube (like Italian cannelloni) which is stuffed with prawns and steamed. It is then served with a hot pour on sauce made of watered down soy sauce mixed with sugar and a little sesame oil. Other fillings such as scallop or pork are common. A lovely dish to share, although it can be difficult to cut into bite sized pieces which you can lift with your chopsticks.

Maxim's isn't going to win any awards for decor. The huge room is lit with large chandeliers and a somewhat bland decor reminiscent of a hotel restaurant or ballroom. But it is clean, comfortable, and well run. It is the diners and friendly trolley pushers who create the atmosphere here. All the dining parties seem to share their dishes between themselves, and chat with ease until it is time to settle up and throw themselves back into hectic Hong Kong life after a short respite.

Maxim's Palace Chinese Restaurant

3/F, City Hall, 5-7 Edinburgh Place, Central, Hong Kong

This post is my entry for the Tuscany Now "Hidden Gems" blogger competition.

Tuscany Now are an Italian and Tuscan villa hire company. The competition entry must be about a "Hidden Gem" found on holiday, anywhere in the world.

The prize is a week’s stay at the spectacular Villa Cignano for up to six people including return flights for two.

Details of the competition can be found here: http://www.tuscanynow.com/hidden-gems-blogger-competition

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