Hong Kong Heights
Fred Ferretti, Eileen Yin-Fei Lo / June 2012
Two new hotels reaching for the skies tower over their neighbors.
Is it truly the tallest hotel in the world? Yes, or until the next one rises somewhere in Asia. With the highest elevated restaurant? Yes. Who is to quibble with The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong, opened in March 2011, so high that it would be difficult not to suggest that that bit of steeple just over the distant curve of horizon might be, just might be, the tip of the Empire State Building’s antenna? It is indeed exhilarating to sit 118 stories up, 1,600 feet, out in the open air sipping an icy Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and eating a plate of Belon oysters just flown in to a restaurant/bar appropriately called Ozone.
In a city that boasts, justifiably, of the quality and breadth of its gastronomy–including what are, arguably, the best Chinese restaurants extant–and its ever-expanding palette of luxe hotels, the 312 room Ritz-Carlton is an eye-opener.
Once, the Kowloon half of Hong Kong was by law a low-level collection of architectural boxes, simply because building could not interfere with the landing strips of Kai Tak Airport. Then Kai Tak was closed, replaced by a massive new airport on, and named for, an island called Chek Lap Kok, and Kowloon began quickly to reach to the sky like the other half of Hong Kong across Victoria Harbor. In just a few years, it has been inundated with multifloor offices, apartments, malls, and hotels.
The Ritz-Carlton is the tallest of these, a hotel occupying floors 102 to 118 of the residential-commercial International Commerce Center, and boasting the highest chef’s table extant, where by appointment a group of eight diners can enjoy the sky while eating 12 courses. It towers over a vast area of reclaimed land now called West Kowloon, which is being developed into a cultural and green zone.
Hotel guests not sufficiently awed by its height may enjoy chef Paul Lau Ping Lui’s glistening roasted goose and giant dumplings filled with moist chunks of lobster meat in the Michelin-starred Tin Lung Heen restaurant up on the 102nd floor, or chef Vittorio Lucariello’s grand creation he calls selezione del prosciutto crudo in Tosca.
Overseeing these restaurants, as well as a “bar” devoted to handmade chocolates, is executive chef Peter Find (pronounced finned) from Germany, who came to his new job from the Wynn Macau, a short hovercraft ride away, where he supervised the 400 chefs and cooks of the hotel in Asia’s Las Vegas.
The Ritz-Carlton’s rooms, its restaurants, its club, and its lobby are all encased in angular spaces conceived by architects and designers from Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan. It’s all burnished woods, glazed bricks, chromium steel, and slabs of slate and marble. If you wish to watch the Chinese kitchen brigade, as we did, they may be seen behind partitions of traditional Chinese wood lattices, while the Italian kitchen sits on a raised marble platform in the middle of the dining tables. Because the hotel’s interiors have been designed to highlight the views and the light, there is a sparkling “path” that connects the restaurants, a path created by thousands of curled silver and colored foil “leaves.”
Also new to the growing number of Kowloon skyscrapers is the Hyatt Regency Hong Kong. It’s a name familiar in Hong Kong but now new; the older hotel having closed, been replaced by a vast mall with a collection of penthouse restaurants, and moved to a new site several blocks away. The new Hyatt Regency is on the floors 3 to 24 of still another mixed-use commercial-office-residential tower. It is a modern squared-off structure, inside and out, and its 381 rooms are run with effervescent good humor by its general manager Xavier Pech, an innkeeper of much experience. Not as sleek as the Ritz-Carlton, it relies for its warmth on a combination of burled and oiled woods and beige marble.
As with virtually all of Hong Kong’s hotels, old and new, it has its obligatory Chinese eating enclave, which is called simply The Chinese Restaurant, a smart space of white linens and paneled ebony, where chef Lo Kwai-kai presides over quite fine dumplings and personal innovations such as bak yuk chong sin bau, a whole abalone sitting atop a bed of grated wintermelon (which he calls “white jade”) and chunks of fresh prawns.
But the hotel’s entry into the city’s dining scene is carried by a grand restaurant, Hugo’s, a nostalgic paean to those restaurants which once were called “continental.” Hugo’s was also carried to the new hotel, from its old home in the former Hyatt Regency, and its dining room of dark-paneled woods and leather banquettes is embellished with heraldic shields and suits of armor, with displays of dynasty urns and a fleet of polished gueridons. Virtually everything is prepared and served tableside. True Caesar salad and an almost pyromaniacal fascination with flambéed items from lobster bisque to crêpes Suzette and café diablo. We were assured that the dining room staff, formally dressed, of course, was adept with fire extinguishers, should they be required.
It’s an ostentatious restaurant, but done with good humor, a delicious gamble complete with strolling guitar players in a city that thrives on newness. There will be, no doubt, bigger and taller hotels in Hong Kong, particularly in the West Kowloon district. These, along with the Hong Kong to Beijing high-speed super train, currently under construction, will add to the ferment. Stay tuned.