Hong Kong’s Wing Restaurant Takes Fine Dining to New Heights

Wing Restaurant, Hong Kong

Chef Vicky Cheng is standing in the middle of a store on Wellington Street in Hong Kong’s Central district, holding up what looks like a piece of bumpy, pale-yellow plastic, about the size of an A4 piece of paper. Considering we’re in a dried seafood shop, I understand that whatever he’s holding is something that comes from the ocean but for all I know it could be a stingray or a bit of desiccated shark’s fin. In fact, Cheng tells me, it’s a fish’s dried swim bladder, known as fish maw, packed with protein and collagen and prized by Chinese people for its immune-strengthening properties. “Do you know how much it’s worth?” he asks. A few hundred dollars, I guess. Cheng puts it on a scale, picks up a calculator from the counter, punches in some numbers and converts the result from Hong Kong dollars to Australian currency. He holds it up. “About $10,000,” he says with a grin.

Wing Restaurant, Hong Kong

If you’ve been to Hong Kong, you might have seen the dried seafood shops, particularly the dozens along Des Voeux Road, also called Dried Seafood Street. And odds are, unless you have Chinese heritage, you know little about what all these extraordinary items are, what they’re worth or what to do with them. There’s aged abalone with its caramel-like insides and spiky black dried sea cucumber (the more spikes they have, the more valuable they are). There’s even prized dried mandarin peel, which is grown in only a few places in mainland China and can sell for hundreds of dollars depending on its age and vintage. It takes someone passionate and patient like Cheng to demystify these treasures for an outsider like me.

While the chef, who was born in Hong Kong but has previously lived in Canada and New York, doesn’t offer personalised tours of his favourite stores for everyone, he does interpret and elevate these classic ingredients at his fine-diner, Wing. Cheng’s dishes are creative, approachable – even for Western palates – and faithfully Chinese.

Wing Restaurant, Hong Kong

The restaurant is located in a large building with a dark façade in Central, alongside rarefied company. Downstairs is the revered but surprisingly homey The Chairman, which opened in 2009 at another location in the same area and remains one of the hardest bookings to nail in Hong Kong. One floor above is Cheng’s first eatery, the one-Michelin-starred French-Chinese Vea. But you could argue that Wing is the most intriguing of them all. “The word ‘Wing’ is part of my Chinese name and every Chinese character includes the six strokes of ‘Wing’,” says Cheng as a way of explaining how deeply Chinese his restaurant is – and also how personal.

The elevator doors slide open and there’s an immediate sense of sylvan calm. The main room is a soft leaf-green, with understated panels of swirled grey marble. Tables are set with white cloths and adorned with nothing but fine glassware, charger plates painted with jade-green dragons and tiny vases of yellow flowers.

Wing Restaurant, Hong Kong

I’m led to an even more peaceful private dining room, decorated with a draped chandelier that’s an interpretation of a classic Chinese ruyi knot, a symbol of good luck. “The vibe is very warm,” local food journalist Vanessa Yeung tells me later. “It’s more like a living room than a cold palace.” To that end, the large double doors are left open to welcome a gentle breeze and let guests gaze at the Hong Kong skyline as they dine. The latter is an unusual feature for the city’s restaurants, which often close their diners in so that all the attention is on the food. Here, the experience and ambience are working just as hard.

The first page of the menu outlines an intense focus on seasonality. Cheng says he changes his menus every two weeks and we’re currently in the Cold Dew season. Maître d’ Swiss Sung presents me with a glass of warm apple and date tea to honour the crispness in the air.

Wing Restaurant, Hong Kong

Then the first courses arrive, their vibrancy shaking the tranquillity of the room. Geoduck clam is topped with an acid-green tangle of bull kelp and thin rounds of Yunnan chilli peppers. There’s fat, creamy Japanese oysters served with a fiery red sauce and neon-orange century eggs. Abalone, sliced into segments like a citrus, is served in a shaoxing wine sauce, from one of only a handful of companies in Hong Kong that make this classic Chinese wine. The most beautiful of all is a dish of royal-purple smoked eggplant, cut into fine ribbons then braided like an empress’s hair. Its tastes are layered, savoury and sour. Like much Cantonese food, the textures of Cheng’s food lean soft but the hits of chilli and bold flavours dance beyond the cuisine’s confines, edging into Szechuan or Hunanese territory. It’s exciting food, precise and exquisite.

Several more dishes arrive, each presented complete at first before being divided up among the diners. “A lot of the time when we go to so-called fine-dining Chinese restaurants, they don't do a centrepiece dish,” says Yeung later. “You just have a piece of that, a piece of this, but you miss how it looks, how the dish is supposed to be.” She has a point; there’s no way the whole king crab with sliced cheung fun rice noodle rolls could be as delicious if I hadn’t seen it presented with the orange armour of the crab shell sitting proudly on a blue-and-white dish like a shield. Same with the dry-aged baby pigeon served whole on a bed of bagasse (sugarcane pulp) so it looks like it’s nestled in the dusty green hay of a barnyard.

Wing Restaurant, Hong Kong

In the back of my mind I’m thinking about what I learnt at the dried seafood store and I wait with a mixture of anticipation and the faint hum of nerves to see how Cheng presents those special items. Towards the end of the multi-course meal I encounter the sea cucumber, which arrives wrapped in the lightest, crispiest spring roll pastry and served in a glossy pool of spring onion sauce. The chef slices it in half at the table, with the theatre of a swordsman. The sea cucumber is thick and gelatinous but delicious, with a delicate brininess. “I understand the palate of the Western culture,” says Cheng, seeing the look of surprised delight on my face. Of course, the best way to make a new ingredient seem less scary? “Everyone loves crisp,” he says with a laugh. The fish maw – so rigid and foreboding in the store – is cut into small slices and draped elegantly over rice. It has the silkiness of mushrooms and, paired with the rice, tastes comforting and familiar.

This is the brilliance of Wing; it pushes the boundaries of what Chinese food can be and what diners will try. Cheng does it in a way that’s charming and accessible, while paying infinite respect to this ancient cuisine. “I want our daughters to love Chinese food as they grow up,” says his wife, Polly, who works behind the scenes at the restaurant. “It’s so important for our culture. We want to be proud of Chinese cuisine.” With Wing, they have every reason to be.

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Image credit: Harold de Puymorin

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