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The Tea House Concept Re-visited: Improving on the Past?

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The upper floor of Lú Fēng  overlooking the lower floor. Photo Credit: Accidental Travel Writer.

Restaurant Review

Lú Fēng is the latest eatery in Hong Kong to join the increasingly crowded restro-restaurant field. The ambiance is fun, the view is spectacular, the service is professional. But what about the food?

Nostalgia has been a key trend in Hong Kong’s food and beverage industry over the last few years. Is this because so little of the city’s physical past has been preserved?

Or is it because of what many people in Hong Kong refer to as our "collective memory"? We seek desperately to hold on to what little is left of our rapidly disappearing past.

I prefer to think of it as our "selective" rather than our "collective" memory. There is a tendency - and not just in Hong Kong - for people to exaggerate what was good about the good old days, and filter out what was bad. 

No air-conditioning? Having to work on Saturday? Crossing the harbour by crowded ferry at rush hour?

The good old days were NOT always as good as we remember them to be. 

But that doesn't mean we can't enjoy an occasional Walk Down Memory Lane. 

Re-creating or Re-inventing the Past?

Restaurateurs have long been adopting interiors with nostalgic décor, which often means hanging framed black and white photos of Victoria Harbour or Kai Tak Airport on the wall. 

They have also been creating menus featuring dishes that were all but forgotten. This often requires interviewing retired chefs and elderly housewives to gain insight and inspiration.

The challenge is if these throw-back dishes will find favour with contemporary diners or if they will need to be updated or modified?

Sometimes only the name of the dish is nostalgic!

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The interior of Lú Fēng features corrugated metal roofing and neon signs. Photo Credit: Accidental Travel Writer.

Taking inspiration from Hong Kong’s tea house past, the Epicurean Group acquired a privileged space on The Peak that had previously been occupied by a Chinese restaurant called Tien Yi.

Opening last October, the two-storey space – which has been re-christened Lú Fēng – takes full advantage of the spectacular views of the South China Sea, Victoria Harbour, the skyscrapers of Central, and the Kowloon Peninsula that the space affords.

The lower floor is designed for casual gatherings whereas the upper floor is reserved for formal dining and corporate events.

I was offered a window-side table on the upper floor.

As luck would have it, I chose an inauspicious day to visit the eatery: the skies were overcast, which was a bit unusual because I was visiting the restaurant mid-winter, when the chances of clear skies in Hong Kong are at their best.

But it doesn’t matter. The food was the star of the show.

And, as my dining companion suggested, “Honoured guests are often welcomed by gloomy skies!”

Simple Appetizers

The menu runs the gamut from simple appetizers and dim sum to lavish seafood feasts fit for an emperor.

There are Cantonese style barbecued and roasted meats as well as soups and wok-fried dishes. Ingredients run from bird’s nest and shark’s fin to abalone, sea cucumber, lobster, prawns, crab, and fish maw.

And if you don’t know what fish maw is, it’s the sponge-like organ that enables a fish to move up and down in the water.

Better you didn’t know! Believe me, it tastes better than it sounds.

As for beverages, there are nourishing teas and long lost favourites such as Iced Pineapple, Black Cow, and Boiled Water with Egg.

It’s all like a walk down Memory Lane – if you are old enough.  Otherwise it’s like a walk down your parents’ or your grandparents’ Memory Lane.

But how was the food?

A sample menu was prepared for me by Executive Chef Harry Hung and his skillful team.

Dim Sum

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The dim sum was brought out in batches. Photo Credit: Accidental Travel Writer.

We started with a procession of dim sum, and I must say, it was about as good as it gets.

Included were Ha Gaw Shrimp Dumplings with Bamboo Shoots, Siu Mai Pork and Mushroom Dumplings, Char Siu Rice Rolls, Marinated Jelly Fish in Sesame and Mustard Sauce, Classic Roasted Goose, and Crispy Tofu with Shichimi and Rock Salt.

Everything was excellent, but if I had to pick one thing that particularly stood out, it would have to be the Classic Roasted Goose. OMG!!! Could go for some right now!

Two main courses followed.

Sautéed Seasonal Vegetables with Bamboo Fungus

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Seasonal vegetables with wolfberries. Photo Credit: Accidental Travel Writer.

Seasonal vegetables can be hit or miss at Chinese restaurants. You often order them because they are good for you – not because you like them.

They are often a bit bitter, a bit tough. Often a thick brown sauce is served with them to mask the taste.

At greasy chopsticks, the “seasonal vegetables” are, in fact, often nothing more than boiled lettuce – I kid not not!!!

These seasonal veggies were anything but. Dotted with wolfberries, they were smooth, they were velvety, they were sweet, they were delicious.

A term such as “seasonal vegetable" is pretty generic so you never know what you're going to get. I mean, it could, really, be ANYTHING that is in season. So I asked.

“Beansprouts,” was the response.

Say what?

I always thought that beansprouts were those translucent things with the yellowish tips that populated Chop Suey and Chow Mein at Chinese-American restaurants.

I guess I've been wrong all these years.

Crispy Rice with Seafood in Fish Soup

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Crispy Rice with Seafood in Fish Soup. Photo Credit: Accidental Travel Writer.

The Crispy Rice with Seafood in Fish Soup stole the show, even if by the time we got our act together to film a server serving it – it wasn’t hot enough to sizzle.

This is what is supposed to happen. The server brings the covered bowl to the table on a tray, removes the cover, and dumps the piping hot rice into the soup, creating an appetizing crackling sound.

Despite the lack of sound effects, I can assure you of one thing: this dish was pure magic.

The broth was rich, velvety, and smooth, and the rice had a delightful crunch.

Dessert

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Deep-fried Mini Sesame Balls with Egg Yolk Paste. Photo Credit: Accidental Travel Writer.

The Deep-fried Mini Sesame Balls with Egg Yolk Paste were served along with the rest of the dim sum, but I was forwarded: These are a bit sweet.

And I was asked: Do you want to eat them now or later?

I decided to save them for dessert, and what a dessert they were! The outside was crispy and chewy at the same time. And inside was something similar to custard - similar, but different. And very delicious!

Chinese Mustard

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Here I am with my favourite (and disappearing) Chinese condiment: mustard! Photo Credit: Catherine Yuen.

I’ve never understood why most Cantonese tea houses have stopped serving Chinese mustard with dim sum.

It used to be that a little dish with a divider down the middle arrived on the table along with the teacups and chopsticks.

There was an orangish chili sauce in one half of the dish and Chinese mustard in the other. Often there was only Chinese mustard.

I always thought that Chinese mustard was the perfect dip for most types of Cantonese dim sum – except, of course, for spring rolls, which should be dipped in Worcestershire Sauce and never – SHUDDER!!! – in soy sauce.

Nowadays I have to ASK for the mustard, and most younger servers don’t have an idea what I am talking about.

One waitress at tea house in Guangzhou actually brought me Japanese wasabi, which led to a heated discussion.

When I said it wasn’t what I wanted, she said I would have to pay for it anyway.

So it was a pleasant surprise when I asked for Chinese mustard and received a dish of it without question.

Changing Times

As the saying goes, the more things change, the more things stay the same, and that is definitely true with nostalgia.

Each generation tries to re-create a nostalgic past, but they usually end of re-inventing it.

I first noticed this decades ago, when American restaurateurs first started revisiting the 1940s diner concept, which we used to refer to as "greasy spoons". The nickname said it all. 

The noveaux diners that started to appear in the 1980s were simply much prettier and much more comfortable than the originals they were pretending to emulate.

The menus were also much more sophisticated – and the food was much tastier. There were a few “classic dishes” for old times’ sake, but even those were classed up a bit.

Reality Check

And so it is with Lú Fēng. I spent two years in Hong Kong in the early 1970s – the era this eatery was modeled after – and the restaurants then were pretty basic.

There were no carpets and there were no tablecloths, but there were spittoons. Cockroaches and even mice were not uncommon.

Chefs cooked and plated the food, but they made no attempt to make it look pretty. As for service, many of the waiters were downright rude!

Lú Fēng re-visits the tea house concept, with some important improvements. It's cleaner, it's prettier, the staff is friendlier and more professional, there's air-conditioning, and - most important - the food is better.

And you sure can't beat that view!

Note: I was a guest of the Epicurean Group.

Where

Lú Fēng , Shop 3A-B, Level 2 &3, The Peak Tower, Central, Hong Kong. Telephone: (852) 2886 8680

For a genuine retro-experience, make sure to ride the Peak Tram from the Peak Tram Terminus on Garden Road in Central.

If that steep climb doesn't stimulate your appetite for some mouth-watering food, nothing will!

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