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You can state absolutely the worst Chinese food you’ve ever had: Chun King chicken chow mein in a tin, which your mother purchased at the supermarket circa 1960. You can still conjure its smell, a combination of moist dog and instant soup. It was actually two tins joined with adhesive tape like a two-stage rocket. The bottom tin contained limp bean sprouts, chopped celery, peppers and chunks of chicken (and moist dog and instant soup) in a gloppy sauce. The top contained crispy “chow mein noodles” to sprinkle over. The ingredients section on the paper label encircling the tin contained an alarming list of chemicals, additives and flavour enhancers. Probably raw plutonium stabilised the mess. You poured it over Minute Rice (a distant relative of Jiffy Pop) and added La Choy soy sauce. It was yum in a hideous way.
Stating absolutely the best Chinese food you’ve ever had is more difficult. In Hong Kong, many restaurants stand out – most prominently, Liao Za Lie, Hu Nan Heen and Lao Zhang Gui Dongbei. Besides culinary excellence, the one thing all these restaurants have in common is that they’re inexpensive. In your experience (admittedly limited), pricier HK Chinese restaurants, elegant though they may be, dish less tasty food, almost as though their goal isn’t to give maximum flavour but to shield their delicate customers from it. Finally, after four years in Hong Kong, you have found a shining exception: Madame Fù.
Sunday. Brunch. The main dining room is done as a pre-revolution Shanghai club for nobs (bringing to mind Groucho Marx: “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”). Your wife loves it. Usually indifferent to setting, you do too. It’s located at the Tai Kwun complex, which years back included Victoria Prison. You can’t help but contemplate the contrast between the here and now and those poor souls who preceded you in that same spot only years before. For an instant, the dark matter of existence, usually invisible to our gaze, is lit. And then you turn your gaze to the food.
First, a small bowl of cucumber salad and a small plate of deep-fried tofu cubes. The cucumber tastes pristine, as though picked and prepped moments before serving. The sauce is layered, containing (you think) soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, sesame oil, coriander, garlic, chilli. It’s outstanding and such a relief after the cucumber salad at yè shanghai, which was just cucumber (not quite crisp) with garlic.
Their tofu dish reminds you of an extinct bird that reappears implausibly. The last time you had it was at a beautiful restaurant (made entirely from stone… just possibly a place called Stone House) in the hills outside Taipei about 15 years ago. You’ve searched for this dish ever since. And finally, here it is, salt-and-pepper crispy tofu: small cubes of silky tofu encased perfectly in a delicate, deep-fried crust (of cornflour, you think), not a hint of oil. You have to be careful with your chopsticks so you don’t break the delicate crust. Notice the beautiful pea shoot garnish. There are three dips: soy sauce, chilli oil and black vinegar. You and your wife adore it.
Shumai with crab roe. Excellent, filled with large, luscious chunks of shrimp. The crab roe pops between your teeth.
Crystal shrimp dumpling. Excellent, encasing flavourful, obese shrimp.
Crystal vegetable dumpling. Fantastic, filled with mushrooms and a wisp of truffle that makes you want to point like a truffle dog.
Crystal spinach dumpling. Good. You like the crystal dumpling wrapper’s consistency, which often gets a bit too gummy, but not here. Your wife loves it.
Madame Fù’s char siu bao. Outstanding. Your wife, bao aficionado, salutes.
Vegetarian spring rolls. Filled with bamboo pith, cabbage and carrot, it’s a fine rendition of this dish, which is often oily, a repository for discarded vegs. You once owned a spring-roll restaurant and are opinionated on this subject.
Peking duck. This is the ideal version, the duck meat sliced thin with the crisp, lacquered skin. The wrappers are what you yearn for – rolled, grilled, blistered (not batter-made). It’s served handsomely with batons of cucumber and spicy pepper and shredded scallion and hoisin. It is a Peking duck you can take home to meet your parents.
Firecracker chicken. Crazy crazy crazy good. This is actually a somewhat refined version of a standard dish at most Sichuan restaurants. Here, the dark meat chicken is boneless, rolled in cornflour (you think) and crisped. At many other places, the bones are not removed, and as a result, it’s almost inedible for you. Here, in addition to a heavy scattering of dried chilllies, they add Sichuan peppercorn (seldom used elsewhere), which brings exciting, tingly flavour. They use cashews, which you’ve never before had in this dish and like better than peanuts. Look closely at the picture and you’ll see they also use both white and black sesame seeds, a touch you’d see at few other places. Your wife, who is a bit heat averse, loved this too. You get unlimited refills of all the preceding dishes, but not this. You asked for a refill anyway, and they brought it with a smile. Wow!
Madame Fù’s Ibérico char siu. Loved it. Though you wish it had been charred just a tad more.
Impossible mapo tofu. Exemplary. Impossible meat is indistinguishable from pork. The tofu is softer than you’re used to, but it’s great. Again, they add Sichuan peppercorn (which you think is underutilised elsewhere), and it gives heavy lift.
Sautéed Brussels sprouts in Madame Fù’s XO sauce. You think they were a smidgen overcooked. Your wife thinks they were perfect.
Black truffle, egg white and pine nut fried rice. Previously, you’ve felt truffle and Chinese food were a culinary mismatch and pretentious. How wrong you were. It’s wunderbar. Insanely delish. The truffle makes you growl and snap.
Dessert is mediocre at best, an “ice-cream sundae”: two scoops with stripes of chocolate sauce from a squeeze bottle, like they’d serve at a junior-high social. There’s also an okay rice dumpling (filled with sesame, if you remember), heavy though. It comes with fresh redcurrants, a lyrical grace note few restaurants would bother with. Judging from their other menus, there are more desserts in their quiver. Pull one out. Or, just some nice fresh fruit would do. How about fresh lychees? Or passion fruit? How about fresh cherries with a drop of pastis (one of the great, elegant, super-simple desserts of all time)?
With the food you got their “standard” drink option (HK$200 surcharge), which entitles you to unlimited Chiaro Prosecco, sparkling rosé, various wines, liquors, sake. And Bellinis. You go Bellini, the drink of Hemingway and his crowd at Cipriani in Venice. Maybe it will wake your slumbering (deeply slumbering) literary powers. You start with standard peach, which, if not apex, is still delicious (apex requires freshly puréed white peach and good champagne). You discover they have other flavours. Mango. Great. Passion fruit. Great. You try their lychee Bellini. Angels sing! It is hyper delicious. You wonder if it would be good for breakfast. After all, it’s essentially a smoothie. You highly recommend it.
Even though you’re no longer hungry and can’t fit in any more food, you order seconds of the Peking duck, shumai and crystal shrimp dumpling. It’s for situations just like this that you are grateful for being part ruminant, with extra stomachs to take the overflow. This way, if you’re hit by a truck on the way home, you’ll have one last happy thought of their duck for the hereafter.
You expect fine, business-like service at high-end HK Chinese restaurants. You do not expect personable, warm service. But that is what you get at Madame Fù. Your server, Arlo, made you feel welcome, was enthusiastic about the food and drink, was attentive, helpful, thoughtful. You and your wife felt particularly well taken care of.
You’ve gnawed some excellent brunches in your time. Madame Fù’s brunch is hands down the best you’ve ever had (your wife agrees). The total cost for two was HK$1,650. Obviously, this is high, but it’s less than many other high-end brunches here. Their drink package is a particular bargain. For what you get, it’s an outstanding deal.
Madame Fù is good for dates, visiting family, pals. In addition to the striking dining room, it has a number of other areas that, at quick glance, seem lovely. Were it a club that offered you membership, you’d join.
Their chefs are top gun. Their food is meticulously crafted, supremely delicious, full-hearted, beautiful. Other restaurants do many of the same dishes, but Madame Fù does most of them better. If you can handle the G-force, come.
Rating (on a scale of 0 to 5)
Overall value: 5
True, the dessert was blah, but you loved everything else so much that you’re giving them a pass on that. There are only two other restaurants in Hong Kong (Amber and now-defunct Little Kitchen) and one in Amsterdam (Restaurant Floreyn) out of 46 reviews that you’ve rated so highly.
Unless otherwise noted, David Greenberg anonymously reviews restaurants.
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