Hong Kong’s restaurant scene has been abuzz this year in keeping up with the flurry of high-profile developments, with everyone from big-name brands to independent restaurateurs jostling for space inside the city’s new dining destinations, from the new Ocean Terminal Extension at Harbour City, to recently reopened heritage compound Tai Kwun and the glitzy new tower H Queen’s. Amidst the frenzy of attention surrounding recent openings in the latter, including London import La Petite Maison and highly anticipated ICHU Peru, comes another star-studded announcement: the grand unveiling of Ding’s Club, helmed by kung-fu-star-turned-celebrity-chef Steve Lee Ka Ding.
Riding on the overwhelming success of his private kitchen in Causeway Bay, Ding’s Kitchen, chef Ding has opened his second venture at H Queen’s to help manage the overflowing reservations book, hoping to offer a more accessible style of dining (Ding’s Kitchen is only available for parties of six or more) for fans to try his classical Cantonese dishes and family recipes. Taking up residence in such a high-profile space (where the rent is undoubtedly astronomically high) is a bold move for the celebrity chef, as he looks to pit his take on refined Cantonese dining against some of the other more established restaurants in Central.
Upon walking into the restaurant on the 3rd floor of H Queen’s, it’s apparent that no expense has been spared on the restaurant’s décor: The stately dining room evokes an ancient temple, with the traditional sloping rooftops decorating the entrance and the interior, giving you the feeling of dining inside an old Chinese courtyard. Extending the dining room is a long outdoor terrace that affords a broad and sweeping view of the city skyline — a rarity amongst restaurants in Central’s crowded concrete jungle, particularly at traditional Chinese establishments.
While the restaurant feels distinctly modern, with its light-grey fabrics juxtaposed with richly appointed dark-wood beams and columns — as opposed to the common gold and warmer woods found in old Chinese restaurants — there’s a strong sense of ancient tradition and philosophy present in the details. The lotus flower is symbolic throughout, with delicate flowers painted alongside scenes of the Chinese countryside on the whitewashed walls, as well as lotus-shaped window frames. Other arrangements adhere to the ancient principles of feng shui: including two statues which flank the back wall, a dragon on the left and a phoenix on the right, to balance the qi of the room.
A subtle and underlying sense of beauty and calm exudes from the dining room, a quality reflected in chef Ding himself — an artist whose principles haven’t changed throughout his journey from the silver screen to the kitchen. Although Ding still does occasional acting gigs, it’s clear to anyone who meets him that a passion for food and runs in his blood, as he speaks adamantly on the importance of preserving the integrity of old Cantonese cooking traditions, methods, ingredients and preparations.
“My philosophy is two-part,” he says in an interview, speaking in his native Cantonese. “First, always use fresh ingredients. Secondly, I never mix things — it’s always step-by-step cooking. That means with each ingredient you are meant to taste that specific ingredient in the overall end dish, versus throwing everything in and cooking it altogether.”
When asked about his opinion on the new wave of modern Chinese restaurants, Ding says, “I prefer not to judge, but everyone eats dishes differently and cooks differently. It really depends on your tastes. But for instance, if I were to give you the same ingredients but used in different cooking methods, I think the customer can tell which one is better.”
Often-laborious cooking methods and centuries-old preparations form the foundation of the menu at Ding’s Club, as if the kitchen’s primary purpose is to revive culinary methods that may be lost with the older generation of cooks. While the processes may take much longer, says Ding, the difference is unmistakable in the end result.
Take, for instance, the beggar’s chicken, a dish of humble origins that has evolved into a celebration of Chinese haute cuisine. Largely bypassed by modern day chefs for its lengthy and tedious preparation process, beggar’s chicken is traditionally made by wrapping a whole bird in layers of clay and lotus leaves, imparting an earthy and fragrant aroma through half a day or more of slow-roasting. Chef Ding’s version uses a special type of mud that’s been mixed with herbs and used to brew wine, then left for years to absorb the scent and flavour of the wine. During the cooking process, the mud imparts the beggar chicken with earthiness and the added aromas of the wine, resulting in juicier, more fragrant meat.
Then there’s the dong gua (winter melon), a summertime favourite which employs the use of the intensely aromatic telosma cordata, or Chinese violet flower. Both the large and small buds are used in the soup, and while the small ones are typically discarded, Ding recycles these into a scrambled egg dish with fresh shrimp served on the side — one of many examples showcasing his devotion to sustainable cooking.
Sampling the other dishes on the menu, it’s clear why Ding emphasises tasting each individual ingredient. The steamed minced pork — traditionally lean minced pork seasoned with soy sauce and sesame oil and mixed with crunchy fresh or preserved vegetables — is a dish that can easily become mushy and uniform. Chef Ding’s version is clear and refined in its flavours, with each ingredient upholding its end of the bargain, from the refreshing crunch of water chestnuts to the citrus hit of dried tangerine peel and bits of fresh and dried squid mixed in for textural contrast.
Other dishes showcase Ding’s penchant for culinary theatre and artistic flair: The copper pot steamed chicken arrives ceremoniously in a giant copper vessel, with thinly sliced chicken, dates, black fungus, mushrooms and cordycep flowers splayed out on a bed of mulberry leaves, placed precariously over a bubbling hot broth. The ingredients are cooked through by the steam from the soup, which is sipped afterwards as a belly-warming tonic. The lobster presents another theatrical touch: The whole head of the crustacean plated alongside two simple preparations — the cooling combination of chopped lobster with cucumber combating the fiery Sansho peppercorns which anoint the lobster tail.
While the à la carte format of Ding’s Club is meant to encourage a more flexible style of dining, we’d recommend the tasting menu for more bang for your buck, with tiered set menus offering a mix of signature dishes, starting at HK$688 per person. The premium dinner set starts with appetisers such as pickled turnip slices and wok-fried pig trotters, followed by mains including wok-fried garoupa fillet, tangerine peel-flavoured chicken and deep-fried bean curd with carp; while the more expensive menus incorporate some of the more premium ingredients such as the lobster and a fall-apart tender stewed Wagyu short rib with spring onion.
While Ding’s Club may radiate glitz and glamour — from its celebrity chef status to the striking interiors — it’s the work of the kitchen that’s presenting something truly important to our city’s dining evolution: preserving a culinary heritage and traditions that may struggle in the future to be passed down from generation to generation. Those who want to tap in to these forgotten methods and discover the roots of Cantonese cooking may find plenty to excite at Ding’s Club.