New Hong Kong dim sum spot House of Orient delivers a sense of colonial elegance to the city’s timeless yum cha tradition, as we discovered after a recent visit.
I’ve always been a fan of dim sum. My grandmother, who lived in Hong Kong in the late 50s and early 60s, would take my brother and me to dim sum as children; it was a taste of nostalgia for her and something wildly exotic to us (New Zealand’s culinary ambitions at the time could have been summed up with (“do you want tomato sauce on that love?”). And while the flavours of char siu pork buns and sweet egg custard were unforgettable, it was also the elegant sociality of the affair that stayed with me – people sitting around with a bottomless pot of tea and a near-endless list of potential discussion topics.
When I moved to Hong Kong, I became a certifiable dim sum junkie and was saddened, over the years, as the city’s traditional yum cha restaurants were replaced by chain ramen joints, office blocks, and perhaps worse of all, cavernous banquet restaurants that did tasteless dim sum and surly waitresses on an industrial scale.
Fortunately, House of Orient, a new opening at Central’s Entertainment Building, seeks to return some of that refined sociality to the dim sum scene, with great dishes, attentive staff, and a subtly contemporary take on this timeless tradition.
As we’ve mentioned before, House of Orient is loosely themed around the compradores, or merchants and middlemen that helped forge Hong Kong as a great free port in the mid 1800s. They were conduits between East and West in a city that would make its name as a gateway between those two worlds, and of course tea was one of their most important commodities.
Consequently, the tea experience at House of Orient is taken quite seriously. Arriving at the new restaurant, which is located on a mezzanine level above the building’s main atrium, we are presented with the tea menu, which features tea blends from across China, including one brew with a rather intriguing story behind it. In an effort to revive Hong Kong’s tea trading heritage, House of Orient traced the origins of Lapsang Souchong, known as the father of all black teas. Grown in the highlands of Fujian Province, this particular blend was traded to the West as early as the 1600s and became a favourite of the British royal family.
In fact, it was a Scottish botanist, Robert Fortune, who is said to have smuggled the tea plants from China to India some 200 years later, giving rise to the development of the now famous Darjeeling tea style. By hitting the archives, the House of Orient team was able to trace this rich tea lineage back to the very plantation in the Wuyi Mountains that the sneaky Scot once pinched the plants from and now presents is as Darjeeling Zero, giving sippers a chance to step back in time to one of the world’s great tea styles.
Our waiter washes the leaves before brewing the tea and the result is an elegant and smooth brew, with an absence of bitterness and touches of alpine pine and wood smoke in its place. It’s the perfect palate cleanser for the dishes that arrive soon after, starting with the fantastically named (and delightfully misspelled) Phoenix-eye dumplings, or Fung Ngaan Gaau, visually captivating prawn and green pea dumplings with juicy, springy filling and a translucent skin that’s firm yet supple to the bite.
These are followed by Choi Yuk Gai Baau Jai, plump buns stuffed with chicken and vegetables; and firm, fleshy Siu Maai topped with mushroom. This double-jab-cross combination of dim sum staples is only trumped by the uppercut of Pou Jap Gai Lap Pai, rich short pastry pies filled with chicken in a Macanese sauce that offer a touch of sweetness and which crumble at the touch.
Chef Wong Chi-sang, a vetreen of Hong Kong’s dim sum scene, having worked at local stars Fook Lam Moon and Guo Fu Lou, presents a fairly comprehensive dim sum menu, meaning you can graze for hours, but standout selections include the broth-filled Seung Tong Ja Fan Gwo dumplings; Haam Seui Gok, egg-shaped fried-glutinous-rice balls stuffed with savoury pork; and modern renditions like deep-fried stuffed crab and Chinese chive dumplings, crunchy little dishes of heaven.
In addition to colonial-esque interiors and attentive, friendly service, House of Orient serves its delectable dim sum on authentic Chinese porcelain produced by Hong Kong’s century-old Yuet Tung China Works, which specialises in Guangcai, a hand-painted Cantonese style that was another popular export during the city’s heyday as a trading gateway.
At least now, with the arrival of House of Orient, modern day HongKongers can once again delve into the heritage of the compradores during a leisurely lunch break.
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