Striking it rich

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 August, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 August, 1994, 12:00am

THE Holy Sacraments of the Church of Fook Lam Moon Restaurant are displayed on the ground floor behind the heavy opaque doors.

Here, below a blood-red altar, is a video screen exhibiting the latest gold figures, London currency fixings, stock exchange prices and foreign exchange rates. Here also are bottles and jars filled with abalone. Those who have prospered in the Church of Fook Lam Moon will find 10 coin-shaped pieces of abalone valued at $24,000.

Two devotional acolytes . . . er, sorry, two leggy ladies press the button for your private elevator, and you are whisked to the Church of the original Fook Lam Moon Restaurant (a newer version opened four years ago in Kowloon). Yet even before entering the room, Pious liquors are on show. In a large glass case parishioners leave their unfinished bottles, their own names firmly affixed to the labels.

The labels themselves are significant. Nothing so prosaic as Teacher's Whisky or Gilbey's Gin. The rule is Hennessy's, but not ordinary Hennessy's. The Cognac is labelled X.X.O., or Royal X.X.O.O. or V.X.O.X.X.

One experienced restaurateur didn't have the slightest idea what the initials stood for, but the message was obvious. This brandy is regal in price.

Fook Lam Moon is the Cantonese restaurant for the rich. The marble furnishings, the fine black lacquer-ware, the special Thai-made plates, the solid pictures and the unprepossessing atmosphere breathes success.

This is not Trendy Rich or Plush Rich or Wannabe Rich. This is Money Rich. One old gentleman wore a suit as wrinkled as he was. Another elderly gentleman wore a T-shirt and stained trousers. The youngish group at our adjacent table could have felt right at home as longshoremen in Kwai Chung.

But make no mistake. These men with their mobile phones and nubile guests have the money which mortals only dream about. The numbers barked into the phones were in the billions, not the millions.

It was nothing for them to order a plate of $3,600 ''most superior shark's fin'' or a tiny dish of $900 ''Bird's Nest Soup with Minced Chicken.'' They would never deign to order a mere ''Braised Sliced Abalone with Fish Maw'' for a few hundred dollars, when they could order ''Braised Most Superior Sliced Abalone'' for a few thousand dollars.

Fook Lam Moon started business 20 years ago on upper Lockhart Road. But even then, according to an old guidebook, customers and cognac bottles went hand in hand.

Still, while Hong Kong has its hypocrisy, nobody is hypocritical about its food. Fook Lam Moon made its reputation because its ingredients were fresh, its cooking had the elegance, simplicity and honesty of classical Cantonese food.

We had to try the shark fin, but the prices were outrageous. The closest thing is scrambled egg with shark fin. In some restaurants, this can be suspect, with pieces of gluten taking the place of the real fin.

I doubt if Fook Lam Moon does this - and they insisted it was real. Still, I tried the Ultimate Shark Fin Test. I took a strand of the alleged fin and rubbed it on the Fook Lam Moon tablecloth. Had it turned into powder, I would have asked for my money back. No, these little strands kept their tensility. It was the real thing. The eggs, too, were wonderful. More crab than shark fin, but certainly tasty.

Next came the baked pigeon. We had wanted the pigeon baked in salt, but this must be ordered a day in advance. Our baked pigeon (actually braised chicken) - complete with head, of course, was tender, peeled right off the bone, and the meat had chunks, not shreds. The sauce was a bit sweet, but certainly palatable.

The lo hon vegetables were virtually all mushrooms. A few chunky greens were stuck in, but this was a mushroom-lover's delight. First came the black Chinese mushrooms. Then oyster mushrooms, looking delectable but without much taste. The crispy tree fungus came next, followed by bunches of canned button mushrooms.

Sometimes one enjoys a platter of simple greens and mushrooms as in most lo hon dishes. This, though, has a greater appeal to the plutocrats who dine here. As in dress materials, cotton is probably the most comfortable and practical material ever used - but millionaires want their silk and velvet. The choy (vegetables) are certainly the best and tastiest, but millionaires want to feel the rare texture of fungi.

The beef section is rather sparse on the Fook Lam Moon menu, but our waiter did suggest a special dish. The reason why it isn't yet on the menu is that the No. 1 Chef of Fook Lam Moon resigned in June, so a new No. 1 had taken over. This was his dish.

The beef came in tender chunks (probably marinated in cornstarch), then fried up with shallots and spring onions, along with a basic oyster sauce, some sugar and soy. The beef was so soft and the onions so chunky that the result was a memorable dish.

The tea with the meal was a good jasmine, but we wanted something more potent. For $150, a hot rice wine was served. Fook Lam Moon never needed the pretence of pouring from the bottle into a silver ewer. They simply plonked the bottle into a basin of boiling hot water, and we poured straight from it.

Probably in the V.X.O.V.X.X.O-style cognac atmosphere, having real Chinese rice wine is something of an affectation.

Our bill was a non-regal $1,300, and we ate enough for three. As it was, the wonder of Fook Lam Moon isn't simply that they serve dishes which Song Dynasty emperors would have salivated over. It is that even the simplest dishes are prepared with the finest Cantonese spirit. It sounds like sour grapes, but shark's fin tastes no better than dental floss. You're better off sticking with beef, mushrooms and absolutely imperial preparation.

Fook Lam Moon, 2/F, Newman House, 35-45 Johnston Road, Wan Chai. Tel: 866 0663. Hours: Noon-2.30pm; 6-11pm daily.