Restaurant reviews: China Tang and An Nam
Jason Y Ng
Sir David Tang’s philosophy on Chinese aesthetics toes the thin line between kitsch and camp. Instead of turning off both Westerners and the Chinese, the Hong Kong-born entrepreneur has pulled it off rather well. Take China Club for example, the members-only restaurant pays homage to Old Shanghai's glamour without coming off tacky or cheap. It has been one of the most sought-after dining venues in the city.
Capitalising on China Club’s success, Tang opened China Tang at the Dorchester Hotel in Central London in 2007. A year later, he teamed up with media tycoon Peter Lam and opened Island Tang at the Galleria Plaza in Central. Then came Kowloon Tang at the ICC in 2012. Eight weeks ago, the dynamic duo unveiled a second China Tang on the fourth floor of the Landmark just above the Italian bakery Ciak, which the two also co-own.
China Tang Hong Kong is a hangout for bankers on expense account. It is where har gow is stuffed with lobster and every siu mai is topped with a mini-abalone. It is where a small plate of barbecued pork costs HK$238 and a dim sum lunch for two can easily go over HK$1,200. Despite the fancy ingredients and hefty price tags, however, the food is not much to write home about. It all tastes rather ordinary.
The interior is quintessential David Tang: flashy but tasteful, nostalgic but modern, Chinese but so very colonial. The space comprises a main dining hall and a half-dozen semi-private rooms, where three to four tables share their own enclosures. The uniformed staff try hard to please, although they can get a bit frazzled – and forgetful – during the busy lunch hour.
China Tang is an exclusive, deal-making place for well-heeled bankers to entertain well-heeled clients. It is not the sort of restaurant that regular salary men and “office ladies” just walk into, nor is it meant to be. Considering that we already have China Club and Island Tang within a 100-yard radius, however, the new addition to Tang's portfolio feels formulaic and been-there-done-that. The truth is, if you don’t mind dropping that kind of cash on Cantonese food, you are far better off taking your business to the three-Michelin-starred Lung King Heen at the Four Seasons.
I travel to Vietnam’s twin cities, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, for work frequently. I have spent enough time there to know a little about – and become a big fan of – Indochine food. For a long time, lovers of authentic Vietnamese cuisine like myself had few places to go in Hong Kong. We headed to Nha Trang for a quick bowl of pho and Golden Bull if we desired fancier fare. That changed a few months ago, when An Nam set up shop at Lee Gardens One where Lawry’s steakhouse used to be. The newcomer is said to be inspired by the royal cuisine of Hue, the imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty.
An Nam made a good first impression. The interior was designed by Steve Leung, award-winning designer who did the Mango Tree restaurants and revamped the Fairwood fast food chain. From the laurel green walls to the European floor tiles and plantation-style window shutters, Leung’s new project exudes a colonial sensibility emblematic of Vietnam’s blended cultural heritage. Lighting consultant Tino Kwan adds his magic touch by giving the space a relaxed yet sophisticated mood. Connecting the entrance to the main dining room is a long hallway where tasteful artwork hangs proudly on the walls and waitresses in traditional ao dai tunics sashay back and forth like runway models.
The delightful décor has an extensive menu to match. Traditional finger food like cha gio (deep fried spring rolls) and bun cha bac (grilled pork with vermicelli) is just the way it is served in Vietnam, except at An Nam the presentation is more refined and the prices are steeper (each at HK$108). The signature pho features tender slices of Angus beef in a light broth infused with cinnamon and cardamom. At HK$98, it is probably the priciest beef noodles in town but it is worth every dollar. Other must-tries include the roasted chicken and grilled beef rolls. The latter is a Vietnamese favourite that is not easy to find in Hong Kong. Patrons are well advised to stay away from Cantonese dishes like the sautéed beef cubes and stir fried morning glory. They are dull and forgettable by comparison.
Like the Thais, the Vietnamese people are not big on desserts. You won't be missing out if you skip the sweet course altogether. Spend that money on drinks instead. The wine list at An Nam is reasonable: a respectable French white goes for just over HK$300. The bar also serves up a variety of conventional and signature cocktails. Dinner for two with drinks will set you back around HK$450 per head (HK$300 sans drinks), which, considering the authentic dining experience you get in return, is not a bad deal at all.