SUK KOO WAN, Hong Kong — Just 45 minutes by ferry from Hong Kong, Lamma Island is a mere dot on the map of the South China seas. Yet for me it was the improbable site of a dining adventure that will be recalled long after memories of elegant banquets in Hong Kong's grand restaurants have faded.
Lamma Island is more a fishing village than a tourist stop, and the town of Suk Koo Wan, a few steps from the ferry stop, caters mostly to Chinese families on vacation.
Along the boardwalk heading north, past tiny seafood restaurants, you'll find the Wan Kee. It's a little larger than its neighbors, with white picnic tables set by the ocean, touches of flowers here and there, and a large plastic enclosure to protect against the occasional angry winds that blow during the monsoon season.
The restaurant is presided over by Wan Kee and Chau Yiu Keung, his lady chef and one and only cook. They work surrounded by tanks of live fish, an apartment-size stove and crates of beer and wine.
Wan, a diminutive and scrutable Chinese gentleman, started his restaurant in 1939. Times and tide washed countless thousands ashore, and he numbers among his patrons British royalty, American film stars and the yacht people, many of whom take their own fresh catch of the day to be prepared in the restaurant and then served aboard their boats.
The food is wonderful, and brings new meaning to the often misused term "fresh." Wan serves a thick, velvety chowder made with fresh corn and fresh crab. Platters of giant prawns are served in freshly ground black pepper along with fresh scallops in oyster sauce, clams in black bean sauce and the sensational "chili crabs," a dish that Wan claims was served first on his island, long before it became popular in Thailand and Singapore.
The dish is prepared with large fresh crabs that are fried to a shocking red color, with freshly pounded chilies, garlic, ginger, tomato sauce and other seasonings.
Despite its fiery appearance, chili crab is not searingly hot. And the sauce, although full of flavor, does not overpower the delicate, sweet crabmeat.
Fresh vegetables are carefully protected from overcooking by the vigilant Chau, who seems to know the precise instant that the bok choy, or broccoli, must be removed from the steaming pot.
You'll find tender black mushrooms, steamed white rice and a variety of fried-rice combinations.
For those who may not like seafood, try the chicken and pork. Dessert may include seasonal fruit combinations or caramel apples and bananas that are delicious, but may play havoc with your fillings. Best of all are the lightly sweetened, deep-fried sesame balls.
Wan stocks a surprising variety of alcoholic beverages, including a fair Chinese wine of the Great Wall label. Beer is by far the more popular beverage, particularly the light and dry Tsing Tao, along with San Miguel and Carlsberg. And there are miniatures, pints and fifths of about everything you can imagine, and some obscure--but very good--French table wines.
It's difficult to list the prices because they change every day, even hour to hour. I have visited Wan Kee three times, had prodigious meals and never got a bill for more than $10. Sometimes I think the proprietor makes up the total bill using some ancient formula that predates the abacus. If Wan likes you, if you're pleasant, if you've eaten well and if his feet don't hurt, he scribbles down a number that only he can translate.
The Hong Kong and Yumatei Ferry leaves and returns on a regular schedule beginning at 8 a.m. and continuing through the evening hours.
More importantly, the last ferry from Suk Koo Wan, heading back to Hong Kong, leaves at 9:40 p.m. sharp.
Unless you don't mind sleeping on the beach, you'd best plan for 2 1/2 hours on Lamma Island, allowing plenty of time for dinner, a stroll along the boardwalk and an early return to the ferry pier. The ferries are clean, comfortable and seldom crowded, and you'll have a great view of the undeveloped 80% of Hong Kong Island.