A lot of Hong Kong’s restaurants, especially in the more central areas, are characterless and insipid. They and (unconsciously) the customers are playing a game: I’ll pretend I’m a real, up-market and stylish establishment, and you pretend to think the meal was fine dining and good value. To prop up the fantasy, restaurant reviewers produce serious-sounding reports describing texture, flavour and ambience while never once pointing out this is just another impersonal, corporate concept cutting corners to pay off the landlord.
The Chinese press are notorious for printing good reviews to shoe-shine or for favours and deserve one star at best. The local English media, with a smaller audience to offer (I mean, higher journalistic standards), is probably more objective but also wrapped up in the game of charades – see the similarity of HK and Time Out’s earnest treatments of eminently missable places with silly names and decors. Two stars.
On-line readers’ reviews like those at Open Rice are beyond the grip of the fashion/spas/brands consumerism that earns glossy magazines their living and are therefore more likely to be rooted in reality. However, real life can include amateurishness, inconsistency, malice, and PR people posing as happy customers, so, despite deserving three stars, this fare still needs a pinch of salt to go with it.
Is there no such thing as a four-star review – one that cuts through the pretentiousness and says: “this is crap”? There is. Consider the following description of the Soupe à l’oignon at the ridiculously named Agnès b in IFC Mall:
…the soup was laced, very heavily, with sugar. It is an old trick of idiot cooks, worn thin with time. If one enjoys drinking onion water with some peeled onions, added to it, a broth that tastes sickly sweet, then, this is for you. For this reviewer, it was pushed aside after the first spoonful …
After the first 2 courses, things went downhill rapidly…
It gets worse, to the extent that you almost start to feel sorry for the cynical accountants behind this sorry excuse for an eatery. This is a review that makes you wince and want to look away, but of course you can’t; you want more.
Even if a restaurant is judged to be good, its environs may still not pass muster:
…a filthy place, in the main, and some of the buildings in their present state ought to be condemned, in this medium’s opinion … a horrid admixture of European and Asian drunks … whores and prostitutes roam the street … At the same time, homosexuals scour the area in search of new partners.
For young girls to visit this area of Hongkong Central, it may seem an exciting adventure into another side of the Hongkong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), but, probably, more often than not, innocent girls are corrupted by the fast-talking inebriants that frequent what this medium would claim is a blot on the territory.
That, it hardly needs to be said, is Lan Kwai Fong. The restaurant under review, Habibi, quite rightly gets the thumbs-up.
Those two reviews in all their glory are here and here. The writer –
the commas gave it away – is Raymonde Sacklyn, founder (in 1974) of Target, a daily Xeroxed newssheet covering business legal cases, market commentary and sometimes eccentric gossip. It lives on, on the web. The restaurant coverage is free for all to peruse, as a public service, and perhaps as an inspiration and example to the more self-restrained and cautious reviewers out there. Four stars.