Ming Court Hong Kong: Worth Two Michelin Stars?

What equates to a Michelin star? What's it worth? These are the questions I thought about after eating a memorable meal in Hong Kong at the two Michelin-starred Ming Court restaurant, inside the Langham Place Hotel Mongkok. At the time, I enjoyed the meal tremendously, and it was surprisingly inexpensive - about $60 a head including wine. We ate until ready to burst, and didn't skimp one bit on the ordering. 

In the days afterwards though, I wondered how worthy of two stars the restaurant had really been - after all, the last two-starred meal I'd eaten was at Les Crayères in Champagne, which easily surpassed the meal at Ming Court in every single regard, from the waitstaff to the taste and presentation of the food, the wine list and the table setting. And there's the difficulty. Les Crayères is a French restaurant, in France, where the Michelin Guide first began in 1900. After one hunderd and eleven years of judging French restaurant quality, those Michelin inspectors know exactly what they're looking for and I suspect they rarely get it wrong. Les Crayeres will remain one of the most memorable meals of my life because it was, simply, extraordinary.

For those not familiar with Michelin Guides, they list restaurants of good quality in a given location (Paris, New York, San Francisco, Tokyo), and will award one to three stars to a smaller subset of these restaurants exhibiting outstanding quality. One star indicates "very good cuisine in its category", a two-stars "excellent cuisine, worth a detour," and three stars "exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey". 

But exactly how do you judge a great Chinese restaurant? The Michelin Guide has only very recently made a foray into Asia, with the first Tokyo Guide released in 2007, and guides now available for Tokyo, Kyoto, Hong Kong/Macau. The real question is whether the Michelin inspectors have sufficient knowledge of the length and breadth of Chinese cuisine to make informed choices. As China Daily journalist Pauline Loh remarks:

"True connoisseurs of the Eight Major Cuisines...are more likely to be scrutinizing the credentials of the Michelin inspectors more than their recommendations.
In a country that has four thousand years of culinary heritage, the Little Red Book from a tire manufacturer may find it hard to make an impact beyond a superficial circle of foreigners and novices."

From Michelin's Chinese Dilemma, by Pauline Loh. China Daily Feb 13, 2011

Is it possible for a European inspector to develop a sufficiently experienced and sophisticated palate for Chinese cuisine (in all its magnificent forms) in just three short years? Michelin says they can, ensuring global consistency in their judging because:

"the anonymous inspectors adhere to the standard five criteria for awarding stars in all areas and countries: product quality, preparation and flavours, the cuisine's personality, value for money, and consistency over time and across the entire menu. These criteria are appropriate for all types of cooking, including Chinese."

It seems, from the slowly dwindling firestorm surrounding Michelin's choices in the original 2009 Hong Kong Guide that their judging is becoming more informed and consistent with time, and that the porportion of Chinese restaurants in the guide is increasing (70% in 2011).

So back to Ming Court. Chef Tsang Chiu King has designed a menu that sounds incredible on paper, and some of the dishes deliver the kind of elegance and sophistication you would expect from a restaurant sufficiently good you would 'make a detour'.

We began with chilled bean curd, cut into delicate flowers and layered with black truffles, topped with gold leaf. Exquisite, and for me the best example of innovation and surprise on the night.

We followed with prawns, with Chinese figs macerated in Shaoxing wine. Not wanting to waste a single delicious morsel I ate all the heads too.

The best vegetable dish was a crunchy diced concoction of stir-fried lotus root with preserved olive leaves, served with crisp lettuce for wrapping.

This was followed by pan-fried chicken filled with minced chicken and black truffles on squares of slow-cooked pumpkin, a great combination of textures and flavours.

Lastly came sticky, gingery lightly-spiced jumbo shrimps curled up and sitting on crisped and crunchy cakes of puffed rice. We also ate, with relish and gusto, an enormous platter of roasted suckling pig and barbecued meat combination, with roasted goose in chiu-chow style; and baby pea sprouts with bean curd skin and crabmeat.

It was all very good, but just not excellent. The waiters were a little haphazard and plates remained unchanged between courses, and when they eventually were waiters reached awkwardly in front of us to collect them.  Our pot of good quality oolong tea remained empty of hot water for most of the meal despite refill requests. The desert menu looked so uninspiring we left it out altogether and ate icecream in the nearby night market instead. All small things, but they did add up to a decidedly less than two star experience for our group.

What will be interesting is to see whther Michelin will brave a China Guide at some point in the future. Pauline Loh has probably hit the nail right on the head when she concludes:

"Hong Kong is a baby step into China, an easy entry because it is a small and manageable territory. The real challenge will come when the Michelin inspectors work to hunt down the best restaurants in every alley and every hutong when they are confident enough to go into the mainland."
For as every Chinese knows, the best cooking has nothing to do with the size or decor of the restaurant, nor the fame of its chef."

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