During lunch – more precisely, before lunch – I was being instructed by a drill sergeant of a woman. She was in my ear, barking, 'Sit down, hurry up! You're blocking the way.'
Ah, lunch hour in Central, the time when the city really comes alive. It's only during this time that you truly witness the magnitude and multitude of Hong Kong; nearly every single individual who works in this bustling financial district, from the humble office staff to the suit-clad, cologne-bathed executives, finds themselves out on the busy streets in search of a good lunch. While the yuppies and the snobs have power lunches in beautiful restaurants overlooking the skyline of the city, the majority of people will squeeze into one of the many smaller local restaurants in the vicinity. Now back to my predicament: I have finally gotten a seat, but I had to make my way through the hordes of diners and clustered tables to my assigned destination, a difficult task given the amount of people in this tiny restaurant and the constant bellowing by the slave master behind me.
Most times, I overlook bad service in traditional Cantonese establishments, dismissing it as simply part of the restaurant's tradition. And in some aspects, it really is – one does expect to be treated poorly at Kau Kee while placing an order; it's part of the entire ordeal. It's almost as if the bad service enhances the experience of the meal. Snobbishness is inherent in restaurants that have thrived for long periods of time – after all, why would they need to worry about one dissatisfied customer when there are many more queuing outside the front door? Like Yung Kee nearby, Yat Lok specialises in roast goose and has been recognised by The Michelin Guide for many consecutive years. But while Yung Kee is all polish and brass, with expensive menu items and multiple stories, Yat Lok operates on a much smaller scale, with a cramped space, messy interior and rude staff. For once – and I don't normally say this – I craved the glitz and glamour that are usually found in a Michelin-recommended establishment.
Let me recount the number of times that I was poorly treated during my lunch: the discerning looks from the staff when I asked for a simple glass of water; the smirks I received when I asked to browse the menu for ONE more minute; the classic 'think properly before ordering' remark when I decided to switch my lunch option. The last one particularly peeved me, because if they allowed me to order what I wanted to order (which was ON THE MENU), this particular ordeal could have been completely avoided. After being told that 'we are out of roast goose drumsticks, order something else', I enquired if I could order the xia zhuang (下莊) – the lower quarter of the bird, consisting of the drumstick and the thigh. 'Of course you can order that,' replied the waitress; and of course I could – it was $40 more expensive. So, basically, I couldn't order the drumstick even though it was on the menu, but I could have a drumstick if I paid $40 more for a quarter of a goose (I know – logic, right?). Whatever, I really like my drumstick, so I gritted my teeth and coughed up the extra 40 bucks.
Bad service can be overlooked if the food is seriously good. If Yat Lok provided me with a fantastic bird with lovely, lacquered, crispy skin and juicy, succulent meat, I would not have been cross; in fact, like a tormented masochist, I would have returned for more abuse. But despite being mentioned in contention as the best roast goose destination in Hong Kong, Yat Lok fell horribly flat. The first and most concerning problem was the skin. Rather than being light with a glass-like crispness, the skin was a puzzling texture of spongy and crispy, something akin to a potato crisp. It was almost as if the chef had just decided to deep-fry the entire bird instead of roasting it, creating an oily, dry mess. The meat was seasoned too liberally with too heavy a hand, which overwhelmed any flavour the meat surely initially had. It was also as tough as shoe leather, raising suspicions that the bird was quartered and plated beforehand – which was a likely scenario as it came seconds after I placed my order. The best thing in front of me? It was the small plate of plum sauce that came with the goose, with the tart fruitiness nicely cutting the fat and sodium of the bird. But, then again, it probably came from a jar, and there was too little of it for the entire plate.
You might think that Yat Lok, with its humble interior and crass service, would be a wallet-friendly restaurant that fits the agenda of Wong Eats Hong Kong. Think again: a quarter of a goose goes for $165, while a plate of plain white rice was charged on the bill for a staggering $17 (the rice, for your information, tasted like normal white rice rather than the angel tears and gold dust it should have for 17 bucks). Most infuriating of all, as I headed out after settling the bill, I heard a sarcastic 'don't come back' being uttered behind me – even though I was just a regular customer having a regular meal without doing anything out of the ordinary. Hong Kong has a bad reputation for horrendous service, and Yat Lok certainly does not quiet the notion. In fact, this terrible meal has made me suspect that all Hong Kong restaurants either cater towards millionaires or operate as death traps to loot tourists and misinformed locals. So to the man who asked me not to return even though I didn't do anything wrong, no, I won't bloody well come back.
34–38 Stanley Street, Central, 2524 3882