As with other metaphysical queries, this remains an imponderable. High rent means poor food. Or does it?
By VIJAY VERGHESE
Hong Kong, August 2013
Finding fresh food and making friends with it is never easy
I'VE SAID THIS BEFORE and I'll say it again. Some of the best hotels in the world serve the worst scrambled eggs. It may have something to do with the fact that with all that rapid growth and random staff intake almost no one in hotels these days is trained. They're simply thrown in the deep end and left to fend for themselves. This goes for public relations ladies – many of whom can only be described as heavily coiffed foetus rictus – who sneer at any opportunity to get their general managers a decent news byte, believing they are engaged in a noble mission to permanently entomb their hotel thus averting any glare of publicity; it goes for doormen who pick their noses and fail to negotiate the best rates for taxis; and it goes for chefs in tonier establishments who don a crisp white toque and then stare at you as if you've asked to elope with the mackerel when you mention scrambled eggs.
Scrambled eggs will almost always end up a perfect omelette that chefs everywhere love to mould, slowly rolling up the viscous liquid, before triumphally sliding it, golden and steaming, onto your plate. So what happened to my scrambled eggs? Soft, moist, and with a drizzle of mushroom and ham. The Sofitels are a valiant exception where French culinary hubris prevents visiting such profound discomfiture on free-range chicken eggs that abhor straitjacket delivery. Here, they'll make eggs, free style, any style, and brilliantly.
Chefs in tonier establishments don a crisp white toque and then stare at you as if you've asked to elope with the mackerel when you mention scrambled eggs
The problem with good food is rent. High rents have forced some of the greatest – not the most expensive – establishments out. And these have been replaced by humdrum assembly-line operations where the same generic orange sauce appears on the pork cutlet as on the spaghetti bolognaise. It will miraculously reappear with the sweet and sour and it may arrive as a side with the salad. Orange sauce is ubiquitous. Especially in Hong Kong. Economies of scale favour whoever bottles – or invented – this nasty stuff; but not the customers who end up slurping the goo just to justify their purchase.
For travellers, finding good food has become a quest perhaps even more noble than entombing the hotel general manager. But where to begin?
As already described, the first thing is to avoid high rent establishments, especially those where the upwardly mobile brandish iPads and heavenly women with heavenly pouts (not a Westin trademark) toss back brightly coloured cocktails. This could be a recipe for disaster. High rents in many cases means a squeeze on quality, and cocktail bars are not the best hunting grounds for gourmets on the go. As chowhound Tyler Cowen wryly notes in his offbeat book An Economist Gets Lunch, beautiful women attract men for reasons other than quality food and such establishments exploit it to the hilt by watering down drinks and palming off average food. Here you come to see and be seen. You may get your face smacked for impertinence but the food will never be lip-smacking good. I exaggerate of course, but the point is fairly straightforward, despite wonderful exceptions to the rule like "Basilico" at The Regent Singapore or "Made in China" at Grand Hyatt Beijing.
Cowen's tips? Figure out "where supplies are fresh, suppliers are creative, and the customers are informed." And look for low rent areas near high rent customers. Cheaper family establishments in a highly competitive environment where several small and busy establishments produce similar food are more likely to deliver the goods than fancy restaurants in malls where the focus is on kids' palates – and we all know what a frightening thought that is. Bland, friend, with a dollop of tomato sauce and a hint of chewing gum.
Street food can beat restaurants hands down. Taiwan is a fabulous example. India too, though you may need to book an ambulance rather than a Rolls to get around. In India, look for cooked foods (read boiled, cremated, burned, fried) and stay away from "fresh" salads and greens that have probably been washed in suspect water. Refuse ice, insist on boiled tea, stay away from places crammed with wide-eyed foreigners, prefer establishments with a long queue of locals, and you'll be fine.
In Shanghai, pootle over to Yunnan Road not far from People's Park where government-run restaurants will ensure you do not imbibe any recycled gutter oil. And in Tokyo head straight for the railway stations where an abundance of cheap and flavourful holes-in-the-wall cater to a throng of salarymen never too tired to appreciate a good bowl of ramen.
Recognising that local food is hard to compete with and that F&B is both a losing proposition and a burdensome cost, smart hotels are exploring outsourcing food to professionals who have made their names and garnered a loyal following already. InterContinental Hong Kong has Nobu, and SPOON by Alain Ducasse. Arriving next year, GHM's The Aayu Mumbai, perched high up a vertiginous Worli skyscraper will employ the gastronomic guile of heavy-hitters Yamamoto from Japan and the Michelin-starred Robuchon.
Maybe that's the way to go. Say no to bland. Say no to foetus rictus. Say no to sunny side up "fly" eggs and INSIST ON SCRAMBLED. According to a recent American Heart Association study, people who skip breakfast stand a 27 percent higher heart attack risk. EAT.
Vijay Verghese started out as a reporter for the Times of India, a national daily, in 1979. He moved to Bangkok and thence to Hong Kong in 1984 as editor and publisher of a range of news, business, travel and lifestyle publications including Business Traveller, HOLIDAY Asia, and Asian Business. He launched Dancing Wolf Media in 2002 and runs the online magazines SmartTravelAsia.com and AsianConversations.com when not dabbling in avatars, music and virtual guff.
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