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Taste of Travel: Hong Kong

East-West Food Fusion : The toniest restaurants in town are American in style and attitude


HONG KONG — To enjoy designer pizza, a la Wolfgang Puck, "fusion cuisine" from former Los Angeles chef Roy Yamaguchi, regional Mexican or the open kitchen styles of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago, it's no longer necessary to dine in the United States. American chefs are flocking to Hong Kong to get a piece of Asia's boomtown. And a percentage of its dining bills.

With the growing affluence of Hong Kong Chinese, and influenced by chefs from California, Europe and Australia, Hong Kong's nearly 9,000-strong restaurant scene has changed dramatically over the past decade. Dim sum, hot pot and Cantonese classics, such as steamed fish with scallion and ginger, will always reign. But the chic place to eat these days is in restaurants serving California-style cooking presented in a leisurely dining style.

The first of this genre to open, the restaurant/bar California was created 13 years ago by garment trader turned property tycoon Allan Zeman--among the richest men in Hong Kong. The Canadian-born Zeman opened California to appease his young expatriate staff of fashion and graphic designers, who longed for the casual dining and entertainment style they had enjoyed in North America. In the early 1980s there were no such Western-style establishments on Hong Kong Island. Those who wanted a burger, pizza or beer had a choice between large expensive hotels run by Brits or by Swiss-Germans who catered to Western tourists. Independent bars, cafes and restaurants were unheard of.

Zeman rented a space in Lan Kwai Fong, a two-block area then occupied by textile warehouses and linen factories. He later bought the entire building and became landlord to a variety of other restaurants, clubs and bars. He now owns several neighboring structures in the same area of the fashionable Central District, a business center of Hong Kong Island that is densely populated with commercial buildings and financial institutions. Lan Kwai Fong has grown to house 70 cafes, bars, restaurants, shops, galleries and stores--all jammed into an area about the size of one quarter of a downtown L.A. city block.

Though newer restaurants, bistros, pubs and cafes have opened since, California loyalists and beautiful people still frequent the popular landmark, with its trademark Muscle Beach burger, Caesar salad with sun-dried tomatoes and brownies a la mode. Dinner for two here, without drinks, is about $85.

But California was just the beginning of the North American connection.

For a taste of Miami-style Caribbean cooking, cookbook author and teacher Steven Raichlen created a menu for the restaurant Miami Spice that opened last year in the Tsim Sha Tsui district of Kowloon.

In a setting of bold Haitian art and tropical colors and the laid-back sounds of mambo, reggae and Cuba's Top 10, singles and handsome bar lizards wrap their hands around drinks with names such as Mojitos and Rumrunners and nibble coconut shrimp, Rasta Rings and conch fritters. Dinner for two (three courses) without drinks is about $70.

On Hong Kong Island, East-meets-West is also played out nightly at the starkly beautiful and culinarily innovative Wyndham Street Thai in the Central District (often referred to as Central), where Chinese-Canadian chef Rosemary Lee creates exciting and bold Thai flavors with the finest seafood and Western ingredients.

The gallery-like interior has a minimalist feel, and its metal chairs, fuchsia and chartreuse walls and concrete pillars frame the food combinations that surprise those looking for standard Thai classics. Pla of duck, for example, has been on the menu since the restaurant opened 2 1/2 years ago, but Lee does not dare change the appetizer, which is composed of moist, tender pieces of duck tossed with lemon grass, chilies, basil and mint. More than 20 chalkboard specials change weekly and most are excellent and expensive (entrees run around $25), but char-grilled baby back ribs with tamarind and chili and honey-flavored prawns in a coconut-based red curry remain fixed features because, like pla of duck, they are popular with both Chinese and non-Chinese diners.

Wyndham also has Hong Kong's most inspired wine list, including bottles from boutique wineries of Australia and New Zealand. Dinner for two, with wine, plus an automatic 10% service charge, runs about $115, although patrons are expected to also tip 5% above that.

Another hot scene with excellent food to match is the sepia-toned Va Bene, an Italian restaurant of three small rooms in the trendy Lan Kwai Fong area of Central. Here, CEOs and other movers and shakers meet for trattoria fare, gutsy red wines from the restaurant's vineyard in Tuscany and a heaven-sent breadbasket of grissini and herbed flat bread served with a sassy pesto sauce.

This is where Italian chefs meet for afternoon grappas and where manager Pino Piano is on a first-name basis with guests who include members of Hong Kong's Supreme Court, bankers, power lawyers, starlets and Asian tycoons.

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