Travel back in time to old Hong Kong for dim sum with a side of history
Dim sum—delicate dishes served in small portions for all to share—is one of the most traditional ways of dining in Guangdong. Perhaps little known to some, dim sum isn’t always about what’s in the bamboo steamers. In the past, dim sum was served to accompany the tea, and tea appreciation made up most of this leisurely dining experience. Today, there are still Chinese restaurants which serve dim sum the traditional way. If you’re all in for the old fashioned style of enjoying things, these historic venues may just be the vintage dim sum set up that will “touch your heart”.
See also: The Best Dim Sum In Hong Kong
1. Spring Moon
Step into the banquet hall of the most historic hotel in Hong Kong where gramophone music, ceiling fans, a large mahogany staircase, wooden furniture and waitresses in cheongsam transport you back to the Roaring Twenties of old Shanghai. Here at Spring Moon, opened in 1986 as one of the first few Cantonese restaurants among Hong Kong’s hotels, the dim sum experience begins with selecting tea. Spring Moon has two resident tea masters led by Elvis Wong, a national tea appraisal tea certificate holder. “Only around two Chinese restaurants out of 10 in Hong Kong still offers tea pairing for dim sum dining,” says Tama Tam Han Yi, one of the tea masters. Their highlights from more than 25 types of tea include oolong tea from Taiwan’s Alishan, Tieguanyin tea from Anxi in Fujian, and Longjing tea from West Lake in Hangzhou, all being China’s most famous teas with a long history. “I recommend pairing steamed dim sum with lighter tea such as white tea and longjing which have undergone less fermentation,” Tam says. “Darker teas such as green teas and pu’er go well with stir-fried dishes with thick sauces.”
Spring Moon’s dim sum department is overseen by Chinese cuisine executive chef Lam Yuk Ming, who has witnessed the changes of Hong Kong’s dim sum landscape for four decades. “From time to time, we add a few twists to our dim sum such as the Sicilian shrimp and minced pork xiaolongbao, since Sicilian shrimps have a sweeter taste; the steamed barbecued Hungarian mangalica pork bun; and the baked turnip puff with assorted fungus and roasted goose which looks like a swan.” Among the 30 dim sum dishes, we particularly recommend the golden mashed taro with diced abalone and chicken. This refined version of the traditional fried taro puff has a more complex texture: the crispy shell, mushy taro puree and chewy abalone dices. The seafood flavour also balances well with the taro’s starchy sweetness. But if you’re looking for a dish that looks as exquisite as it tastes, go for the “goldfish dumpling”, which is a steamed lobster and shrimp dumpling with bird’s nest in lobster bisque, served in the shape of a little goldfish resting on a Chinese soup spoon.
Spring Moon, 1/F, The Peninsula, Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui
2. Lock Cha
In 1991, Ip Wing-chi, who has always been fond of tea appreciation, Chinese calligraphy and Chinese music, set up Lock Cha, which was relocated to its current Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware in Hong Kong Park in 2003. “Lock Cha means the joy of drinking tea whereas Ork Cha (another Cantonese pronunciation for the character “lock”) means music and tea—I’m fine with both,” says Ip. In this cream-coloured colonial building surrounded by birds and flowers, diners get to choose from a long menu of 60 types of tea while listening to Cantonese naamyam songs or gu qin music by So See Dai, an expert of the ancient Chinese string instrument (unavailable temporarily due to the pandemic). “I look for the tip-top qualities in both the food and drinks,” Ip says. Each table has its own kettle to brew hot tea, which is served in porcelain cups and clay kettles of various sizes according to the tea leaves’ nature. Ip recommends the aged Zhen Shan brown pu’er, which has a mellow and clean taste and a smooth texture. The old Liubao, Lion Peak Mingqian Longjing, white peony, old tree Shuixian and narcissus white are all popular choices due to their rarity in the city.
In 2018, he and his son Stephen Ip also opened another restaurant and bar in Tai Kwun, the police station-turned-cultural centre. “The western colonial architectural style has unshackled us from limiting ourselves to serving Chinese cuisine,” the founder says. They work with Heroes Beer to create four types of tea beer: Pu’er English strong ale, Phoenix Oolong pale ale, honey black tea brut ale as well as Jasmine green tea wheat beer. Apart from a selection of cold brew, they also created eight tea cocktails. “Since 1586” is served with a rose bud-shaped ice cube made with Shengmiaoxing Tieguanyin tea in a porcelain tea cup with lid. As it melts into the gin and syrup, it releases a fresh, minty taste that resembles mojito. For those who love floral drinks, try “Oolong Illusion”, which is Osmanthus phoenix oolong with a gin base with a light note of melon; for those who are feeling fruity drinks, go for the “Forest Whisper”, which is jasmine pearl green tea with a vodka base served with apple slices.
Their dim sum menu is vegetarian in Tai Kwun and vegan in Admiralty. The Ips hope to support locally produced ingredients. Their fried wontons, paired with Yuet Wo vinegar, are made with Wai Chai’s Kang Kee noodle shop. Both shops were set up 1945; Ip has to drive to purchase wonton sheets and noodles for his stir-fry dishes from the tiny shop every now and then since Kang Kee no longer uses bike delivery services – a common sight in old Hong Kong. The pan-fried tofu is made by Madam Nui, a sheet metal tofu stall lady who has been making bean curd products since 1975 in Graham Street market. They also use Shek O’s preserved vegetables, Yu Kwen Yick (since 1922)’s chilli sauce and soybean from Kowloon Soy Co (since 1917).
Tai Kwun (Teahouse & Flagship Store), G06-07, Block 01, Tai Kwun, 10 Hollywood Road, Central; Hong Kong Park (Teahouse), G/F, The K.S. Lo Gallery, Hong Kong Park, 10 Cotton Tree Drive, Admiralty. lockcha.com
3. Madame Fu
Chef Mo Wan Fei remembers a childhood of indulging in northern dumplings when he grew up in Shanghai. That set the path for his culinary career at 18, and he learnt to make both northern and southern dim sum in Hong Kong after working in Germany and Holland. After 16 years as the head chef at Kee Club, Mo now leads his team at Tai Kwun’s Cantonese fine dining restaurant, Madame Fù, where he experiments on injecting novel western ideas to his cooking. Apart from creamy lava egg custard buns, fluffy char siu buns enveloping 12-hour slow roasted Iberico barbecued pork, pan-seared buns that soak up the succulent omni-beef and crispy prawn wontons, Mo also created the orchid-pink and white dumplings. These seafood and honey pea dumplings are made with the tri-dye method using natural colouring from beetroot and butterfly pea. But the head chef’s most prized creation is his crystal shrimp dumpling with an ‘al dente’ touch, made with his Shanghainese family’s secret recipe. You’ll just have to try the paper-thin, translucent and malleable skin with the fresh, meaty shrimp to make a guess. Currently, Madame Fù is offering a 90-minute free-flow dim sum deal in celebration of Mo’s four-decade-long career.
Although Madame Fù’s brightly coloured couches, cushions and paintings on every wall may not give out a historic vibe, its opulent décor in the six dining rooms that span the entire third floor transports you from contemporary Hong Kong to the artistic salon of Madame Fù, a cultural and intellectual woman ahead of her times. If you love al fresco dining, there’s also a verandah looking out to the courtyard of the 1880’s colonial building where you can sip your afternoon away with tea-cocktail blends.
Madame Fù, 3/F, Barrack Block, Tai Kwun, 10 Hollywood Road, Central; madamefu.com
4. Nove at The Fringe
Interior designer Albert Kwan, who was behind China Club’s and China Tang’s vintage looks, is back for another project at Central’s Fringe Club. All-day dim sum and Chinese restaurant Nove opened their second branch in mid-July last year after their highly successful diner on Li Yuen Street East. Kwan turned the second floor of the chic cultural space into a warm diner with red lanterns dangling from the ceiling. Visitors can choose the dining area with plushy booth seats, bamboo chairs and Chinese landscape paintings, or head over to the bar for dim sum pairing with prosecco cocktails, Chinese tea cocktails and Doyle’s beer. Stylist Felix Wong, who has dressed Cantopop singer Eason Chan, designed the Nove team’s uniform to create a full vintage dining experience.
The food is no less than the look of the restaurant. Its Chinese concept is created under chef Umberto Bombana’s Octavium Group and the kitchen is headed by dim sum master Wong Yiu-por, who returned from his retirement after cooking for half a century, having supervised Island Tang and China Tang, which has one Michelin star. Nove at the Fringe specialises in Chiu Chow delicacies including lo shui marinated goose, pig’s trotter and offal. It also has a modern twist on the traditional Cantonese dim sum recipes, including roast Iberico pork, as well as dishes named in honour of local artists who regularly performed at the Fringe Club, such as the Eugene Pao (a wagyu bao) and the Ted Lo (a crispy turnip pastry). Nove at Li Yuen Street East, on the other hand, is best known for their signature rich steamed pork belly buns. The rice flour rolls, dumplings, steamed rice and dessert also pair well with their bush teas and Scent of Phoenix Mountain tea. The culinary team makes everything from flour to buns to make sure the dim sum is the freshest for enjoyment.
Nove at the Fringe, The Fringe Club, 1/F, 2 Lower Albert Road, Central; Nove, Shop B, 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central; novehk.com
5. The Queen
FWD House 1881 is known for their afternoon tea, but western pastries and cakes aren’t the only culinary delights you can enjoy in the former Marine Police Headquarters. Shaded from the summer heat and hustle and bustle of Tsim Sha Tsui is The Queen, a Chinese restaurant opened last June in the Chinese residential courtyard of the Victorian colonial building. Its traditional Chinese study room décor, brass tea pots and elaborately painted cyan porcelain teacups offer a nostalgic dining experience.
Here, head chef Chan Ki Pak, who previously led Macau’s award-winning, Michelin-starred restaurant Wing Lei, specialises in Chuan cuisine which is known for the complex spice combinations, as well as seafood dishes and a vast variety of dim sum that is presented with innovative tastes, vibrant colours and a contemporary take of the classic recipes. The Queen’s signature includes steamed Shanghainese dumpling with spicy soups, the pink jewel-like beetroot and wild mushroom dumplings, steamed rice rolls with crispy shrimp, kimchi radish cakes and pepper crisps with minced pork and shrimp. If that’s not enough, The Queen also serves main courses made with typical Chinese ingredients and an international twist: the black truffle crispy chicken with chives sauce, Sichuan-style lobster and tofu, scallop puffs with crispy rice in lobster soup, deep-fried marble goby fish, and seasonal vegetables with geoduck.
The Queen, G/F, FWD House 1881 Main Building, 2A Canton Road, Tsim Sha Tsui; fwdhouse1881.com
6. Tai O Lookout
Seated on the first floor of Tai O Heritage Hotel, a police station-turned-boutique hotel, is a restaurant with a glass roof and windows looking out to the vast South China Sea. This guard tower was where the local marine police used to station to guard against pirate activities in the past. With the pirates gone today, visitors can now appreciate the starry sky at night, immerse themselves in the colonial décor and rest on the wood-carved furniture from China Tee Club. Tai O Heritage Hotel was awarded Merit at the Asia-Pacific Awards in Cultural Heritage Conservation by UNESCO in 2013, making it the first hotel to receive the honour in Hong Kong.
Yet, it takes more than the setting to earn this recognition. The restaurant promotes the charming cultures and indigenous fare of the century-old fishing village nearby. The culinary team sources local ingredients and incorporate village recipes to create the ‘Taste of Tai O’ tea set, which presents crispy chicken wings with shrimp paste, deep-fried shrimp toasts with salty egg yolk paste, pan-fried house-made pork patty with salty fish burger, churros with mountain begonia sauce and special mangrove-inspired drinks. Mountain begonia is a tea tree leaf from Lantau’s Phoenix Mountain used by villagers to make herbal tea to help with their appetite during the hot summer days and detoxification. If you’re looking for Cantonese classics, their Tai O a la carte menu has fried rice with shrimp paste and deep-fried squid rings with salted egg yolk paste and Tai O fish maw soup.
Tai O Lookout, 1/F, Tai O Heritage Hotel, Shek Tsai Po Street, Tai O; taioheritagehotel.com