Fare cops write the good bites

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 December, 2011, 12:00am


If the past few years are anything to go by, an announcement being made today will have Hong Kong foodies grumbling in disagreement. The first Thursday in December is the day of the release of the Michelin guide for Hong Kong and Macau, and every year since its debut in 2008 (the 2009 guide), it has whipped up controversy.

That first year, it was revealed that Lung King Heen at the Four Seasons Hotel in Central had received three stars. It was the first time a Chinese restaurant had received top honours, and put it on the level of Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athenee, La Maison Troisgros and Michel Bras in France; The French Laundry in the Napa Valley, California, and The Fat Duck and The Waterside Inn in England.

The next year brought the inclusion of Mong Kok dim sum shop, Tim Ho Wan, which had bragging rights as the cheapest one-star restaurant on the planet. Last year, the guide had tongues wagging for bestowing three stars on Sun Tung Lok, best known for its shark's fin dishes, and one star to noodle and congee shop Ho Hung Kee in Causeway Bay and Hin Ho Curry in Shau Kei Wan, whose owner admits adapting the flavour of Indian curries to suit local tastes. The consensus among food lovers was that while Michelin is accurate in its assessment of European restaurants in Hong Kong and Macau, its selection of Asian restaurants is - to put it mildly - puzzling.

However, Michelin is not the only guide in town, and each one adopts its own approach to judging. Michelin appeals more to overseas visitors, who, rightly or wrongly, trust it for Asian restaurants in the same way they do with the guide's European publications.

Hong Kong residents, though rely on other guides for different reasons. Many use the website openrice.com as a first reference about Hong Kong restaurants, to check information such as location and phone number. The site is extensive, listing not only restaurants, but also fast-food places and coffee shops. It's a lot to plough through, though, and the next step is delving into city-focused publications such as the WOM Guide.

When you travel around Asia, The Miele Guide to the top 500 restaurants in the region is a handy reference, and the S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best list is good for international, high-end places.

The WOM Guide (an acronym for Word of Mouth) was launched in 2005 by friends Samanta Pong and Fergus Fung. It gathers ratings and comments from diners and compiles them into a book and website. 'We came back [to Hong Kong] from different parts of the world. I [had been] living in Tokyo and Samanta in New York,' Fung says. 'We wanted to have something to rely on, written by the people for the people. At that time, there weren't any printed guides with an independent overview of restaurants.'

The two took their lead from Zagat, which lists restaurants according to reader ratings. 'We tried to sound out Zagat to see if it was interested in Hong Kong, and at the time, we heard that it wasn't. It eventually came to Hong Kong after we'd been here for a few years.' Zagat published just one guide to the city, in 2008, which was a slim volume of 94 pages.

Fung says that roughly a quarter of Hong Kong's licensed restaurants make it onto the WOM Guide database, and a lot fewer make it into the printed version. 'We have a very tight vetting process,' he says. 'We have a database of about 3,000 restaurants and there are 12,000 licensed restaurants in Hong Kong. Some [of those] are McDonald's and Starbucks, and tiny places in housing estates, catering to the neighbourhood. We don't include those unless they have a very special dish or are doing something no one else is doing.'

The printed guide features 300-600, depending on the year. 'Restaurants [in the guide] have to be reviewed positively by a certain number of people, and then they're vetted by us,' Fung says. 'One thing about a public vote is that it's hard to tell if it's truly independent or someone trying to make their own ratings. This is a problem around the world [with guides] if they're ratings-based. We check most of the restaurants in there and also check with other media to gauge industry comments, as well as what members have to say. It's very important for us to see what's on the street and have our own experience. We try to visit all of them.'

The Miele Guide, which ranks the best restaurants in Asia, takes a broader approach. Miele uses a complex process that includes garnering the opinions of professional restaurant critics in each Asian country, who nominate the 20 best in their jurisdictions.

The list goes online for voting from the public - who are free to nominate restaurants they like. Also voting is an invited jury of journalists and food and beverage professionals. The results are tallied, with slightly more weight being given to opinions of the jury, to arrive at the final rankings for the guide: Asia's top 20, as well as the next 480 highest ranked.

Aun Koh, who founded The Miele Guide in 2007, says: 'Back then, restaurant guides were city-specific. There was no regional guide to restaurants in Asia. We wanted to create a guide with a standard that chefs and restaurants in it could be proud of. European chefs could tell people they were in the Michelin guide, and that would gain them respect with the public; Australian chefs could say they're in The Good Food Guide. There wasn't a guide [in Asia] with that kind of status and integrity so that Asian chefs could tell people anywhere in the world about it and command respect.'

Koh says a lot of thought went into the complex voting process. 'We studied the guides on the market. With Michelin, it's just a few people tasting. We didn't want it to be purely democratic, but at the same time, we didn't want just a few people deciding the fate of restaurants. We tried to come up with something that could give the best possible results with the widest possible opinion. It reflects the popular vote, not just the foodie vote. While Japan has one of the largest chapters in the book, none got into the top 20 ... We make it a point that any restaurant in the guide is exceptional: if it's not in the top 20, it doesn't mean it's not good. Those are just the most popular.'

Of all the food guides, the S.Pellegrino list takes the most international approach, compiling votes from 837 panellists in 27 regions. It has come a long way since its launch in 2002 by the British-based Restaurant Magazine, when it was the opinion of 70 experts, and is now a team of 300-plus voters, mostly based in Europe.

In 2006, it expanded the voting internationally, dividing the world into different regions (known as 'academies'). Back then, what was referred to as the 'Far East' region consisted of all of Asia, including Hong Kong, China and Japan.

'In the early days, I covered the whole of the Far East, and that included Guam and North Korea. That panel was just too enormous and diverse, so it was changed to Hong Kong, Macau and China. In 2009, it became Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan,' says Grant Thatcher, founder and publishing editor of Luxe City Guides and academy chair for the guide since 2006.

The guide has also adapted its voting in an attempt to be less Eurocentric, not only refining which countries make up the regions, but also expanding the number of votes each panellist can have within their jurisdiction.

'Last year [since it expanded the voting], the first restaurant in Hong Kong made it into the top 50 - Amber [at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental],' says Thatcher.

'But people don't always realise that there's another list of the 51-100 top restaurants that is equally interesting. These are not as well known, but they're up and coming. There are several in Hong Kong on that list, and they've come a long way in a very competitive market.'

In the end, though, a guide is just that - a guide - and it can be out of date from the day it's published.

'Do you really want to rely on something that's six months old?' says Fung, though the WOM Guide is annual. 'Hong Kong is a fluid market. Chefs change or restaurants close because rents go up.'

Ultimately, readers choose which guide to follow, says Thatcher: 'The World's 50 Best doesn't claim to be definitive. It's the opinion of 837 well-fed, well-travelled people linked to the food industry. You can either take it as something valuable or not. But that can be said of all guides; none of them is definitive. You choose the list that goes with your style of dining. If you want elevated style, you go for Michelin.

'The S.Pellegrino list is eclectic and vibrant. It's a great way for people to hear about restaurants. For the first time [in 2011], there was an entry from Peru. I've never been to Peru, hadn't thought of going there, but now I might go because there's a restaurant to try. The point of the World's 50 Best is that it galvanises people to discuss food. If it piques your interest to visit restaurants and countries you've never been to, then it's done its job.'