Four Hong Kong restaurants putting a modern spin on dim sum
A new wave of chefs is reinventing the bite-sized treats that are one of Cantonese cuisine's gifts to the culinary world
Dim sum is one of Hong Kong's time-honoured dining experiences, plugging into an older generation's defining food memories, deeply rooted in a sense of family and tradition. Yet, in keeping with the broad trends of new wave Asian cuisine, a younger generation with a more international perspective yearns to define the dim sum experience afresh. Subsequently, modern dim sum restaurants have appeared, catering to these more contemporary, more adventurous tastes. It's a fine line, of course, innovating and pushing the boundaries while remaining anchored in tradition - abandoning authenticity completely is a recipe for a fusion mess. But that's what makes it so challenging and exciting, as the rules are slowly revised and Hong Kong's appetite for dim sum with a difference expands.
The Western world has fallen in love with dumplings - explore the foodie hubs of New York, London or Melbourne and you're guaranteed to find some hipster enclave offering its take on this Asian comfort food. That's all well and good - Western dining has been enriched by the embrace of Asian flavours, while the Asian market benefits as interest deepens overseas and diners become more knowledgeable. But it's hard to imagine any of these well-meaning establishments taking their dumplings as seriously as the operators at Tycoon Tann.
The offerings here are innovative - for example, the combination of wagyu beef with pear, encased in a crispy shell. It doesn't sound like it should work, but the way the hint of fruitiness lightens and offsets the richness of the beef is a revelation. It's certainly not traditional dim sum but the complexity of flavours is superbly judged. The Iberico pork dumpling with scallop and caviar is also exceptional; the soft-centred scallop and caviar finish are guaranteed to send your umami sensors into overdrive.
To follow, there's a Shanghainese pork dumpling with crab roe - at once delicate and deeply satisfying - and a shrimp dumpling with pork and elm fungus, further evidence of the excellent work done here with unique ingredients.
The baked barbecued pork bun swaps the lightly textured skin for a crustier, bread-like casing, while the crab meat spring rolls stuffed with mozzarella cheese offer yet another deliciously surprising combination. Hipsters from overseas should prepare to have their minds blown.
74 Wellington Street, Central, tel: 3125 3228, tycoontann.com
The Sky Boss
For a heightened - in both senses of the word - dim sum experience, dining at The Sky Boss, 400 metres above Victoria Harbour atop the ICC, takes some beating. It's a high-end setting and the premium ingredients are selected accordingly. When a shrimp dumpling arrives with a foie gras filling, it's clear this is dim sum with broadened horizons, adapted for an international set of food references. Some purists might balk at the fusion element, but it passes the taste test with flying colours - and that's all that matters.
Similarly, the steamed mixed mushroom and black truffle dumplings make delicious use of non-traditional ingredients, as do the pork dumplings with caviar, while upholding a very traditional commitment to technique and delicate presentation. This challenge of balancing authenticity and innovation is again illustrated in the approach to abalone, a "difficult" ingredient that is not easily blended with many of the flavours associated with old-school dim sum. Here, the intriguing solution is to serve the shellfish laid lovingly atop pastry in a kind of open pie.
The deep-fried sesame balls with egg yolk are a marvellous end to the meal: a savoury shell splitting to release the yolky goodness inside.
101/F International Commerce Centre, 1 Austin Road West, Kowloon West, tel: 3955 1755, thebossholdings.com
Dim Sum Icon
Innovation within dim sum can take different forms - in some instances, it may be the use of new ingredients, unexpected flavours or distinctive techniques. There are elements of these different approaches at Dim Sum Icon, but it is the flair for presentation that truly stands out.
Take, for example, the mini wasabi prawn burgers. Traditionally these might have been served as savoury dumplings, but they're reimagined here as spicy sliders with a seafood sauce laced with wasabi. These wouldn't be out of place as finger food in a trendy gastropub. Another eye-catching dish is the deep-fried minced chicken dumplings that are styled to look like miniature carrots.
The deep-fried shrimp comes crusted in breadcrumbs and is served with a sweet chilli dipping sauce, while the spring rolls are wrapped in a rice paper noodle borrowed from a different staple of Chinese cuisine.
The striking presentation is again on show in the desserts - a fresh pomelo tea jelly, fashioned to look like orange slices, makes excellent use of a fruit not traditionally featured in dim sum. Pomelo is a less juicy relative of the grapefruit and makes a refreshing contrast to the tea flavour. But if there's a signature dish here, it may be the marshmallow rabbits: fluffy white creations delicately textured with flakes of coconut. These are not new - rather, the marshmallow rabbit is a forgotten dim sum handicraft. It turns out inspiration has no expiry date.
Shop L308, 3F The ONE, 100 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2885 1345
There are no trappings of traditional Chinese restaurants to be seen here: no ornate rosewood screens, no swathes of red paint and definitely no embroidered dragons. Instead, the atmosphere is akin to an upmarket deli or cafe, complete with open kitchen and industrial chic fittings, all designed to attract a clientele consisting, it seems, largely of young professional women meeting after work. Their grandmothers would probably deem this dim sum setting unrecognisable - perhaps that's the whole idea.
The food is thrilling - adventurous ingredients are added, the presentation is delightfully tweaked while cherished Chinese flavours are meticulously preserved. Take, for example, the truffle shiitake buns - the skin encasing the mushroom filling neatly styled to resemble a mushroom. It's an eye-catching variation. But it's the addition of truffle, an expensive ingredient drawn from European cuisine, that carries the dish, delivering a hint of fusion without going too far.
Other highlights include pork belly sliders and aged balsamic chicken wings, designed to mimic char siu. This is dim sum as dude food; you'll want to ditch the chopsticks and help yourself with your hands. The chilli pork dumplings strip back a Sichuan classic, losing the soupy filling in favour of a zingy herbal seasoning that bursts with colour and delivers a serious peppercorn kick.
The spicy 1,000-year duck eggs are styled playfully on the plate to resemble fish, while the double-boiled pear served with aged mandarin peel is an indulgent finish for the purists.
2/F The L Place, 139 Queen’s Road Central, tel: 3568 9666, socialplace.hk
The best of the traditional dim sum restaurants
If you're looking for something more traditional, we've got you covered.
Dim Sum Square
Opened in 2010 by three experienced dim sum masters, this no-frills venue is so popular it had to move from Jervois Street to its current, bigger space to accommodate guests craving its siu mai, runny custard buns and generously filled dumplings.
Fu Fai Commercial Centre, 27 Hillier Street, Sheung Wan, tel: 2851 8088
Lin Heung Tea House
Get here early if you want to grab a seat, let alone a table, and then begin the tradition of rinsing your tableware in hot tea before tucking in. Competition can be fierce for dishes, so be prepared to have a stand-off with grandpa over that last char siu bao. Among the many favourites here are the siu mai, lotus seed paste buns, and steamed fish balls.
160-164 Wellington Street, Central, tel: 2544 4556
Luk Yu Tea House
This institution has a wonderful art deco interior on the ground floor and keeps the food traditional, too. Be sure to make a reservation and try the fluffy char siu bao, har gao and, for the adventurous, pig liver. Finish off with the sinfully addictive flaky egg tarts.
G/F-3/F, 24 Stanley Street, Central, tel: 2523 5464
Tim Ho Wan
It would be a crime not to order from this popular chain the baked bun with barbecue pork that made the name of owner Mak Kwai-pui, former dim sum director at Four Seasons' Lung King Heen. Other must-try dishes include made-to-order steamed rice rolls and deep-fried glutinous rice dumplings with meat and dried shrimp.
Six branches, including shop 72, Olympian City 2, 18 Hoi Ting Road, Tai Kok Tsui, tel: 2332 2896
Vanessa Yung and Bernice Chan