The sight of Victoria Harbour is often interchangeable with the concept of Hong Kong itself – while the formidable profile of the Peak stands sentinel through the ages, the city below it shifts and expands, absorbing the new while remaining, irrefutably, itself.
The same can be said of a culinary institution that stands on the harbour’s shores, gazing out at maritime comings and goings from a new perch within the InterContinental Hong Kong.
First opened in 1984, Yan Toh Heen has raised Cantonese cuisine to new heights over its lifetime with its two Michelin stars and, much like the cityscape, has adapted to novel influences while remaining true to its core.
Its latest adaptation has been a particularly important one. Ahead of the InterContinental’s upcoming year-long refurbishment (due to begin in 2020, whereupon the hotel will re-emerge as The Regent Hong Kong), Yan Toh Heen took up residence in a prime harbourside space in newly redecorated quarters courtesy of CAP-ATELIER.
Headed by interior designer Henry Leung, who was responsible for the restaurant’s last renovation in 2013, the creative outfit elevated the surroundings this time with a deference to rarefied Chinese materials and craftsmanship.
Speaking on the theme of the new design, the InterContinental’s communications director Carole Klein says: “Imagine a jade jewellery box that opens up to uncover all kinds of treasures. There’s discoveries to be made wherever you look, and collectibles and culinary treasures in every corner.”
Diners must first pass through a transportive corridor featuring full-height jade resin walls with shan shui carvings depicting the seascape around Victoria Harbour, before arriving at a sculptural porcelain centrepiece by New York-based ceramic artist Sin-ying Ho. From there, they enter the main dining room: a hushed, low-ceilinged space, the contemporary design of which doesn’t dare detract from the star of the show – the picture-perfect views of the skyline.
There’s discoveries to be made wherever you look, and collectibles and culinary treasures in every corner.
Enhancing the restaurant’s cocooning effect are exquisite handmade silk screens with Suzhou-style double-sided embroidery of magnolias, peonies, Chinese roses and chrysanthemums, each representing one of the four seasons. They appear to be suspended in the air thanks to the six-layered construction of the silk screens, which create an imperceptible sense of depth.
Elsewhere, nods to China’s traditional literati culture persist – in a glass enclosure that stores a private collection of Yixing clay teapots used by tea sommelier Kelvin Ng to steep the restaurant’s premium selection of Tieguanyin Supreme and 30-year aged pu’er; in the imperial yellow Library Wall of the smaller private dining room, comprised of hand-bound, silk-spined books; and in the green onyx birdcage panels of the larger VIP room, which were also present in the restaurant’s last iteration.
Of the aforementioned “culinary treasures,” Yan Toh Heen’s portfolio is near-peerless thanks to Chef Lau Yiu-fai, whose three decades of experience makes itself known in the delicate and nuanced flavours of the menu. He modestly credits this not to his technique, but the quality of the ingredients. Otherwise, he explains, “you’ll lose the original flavour, so in Cantonese cuisine, we strive to preserve that original, inherent taste while avoiding too much sauce.”
Yet, despite the restaurant’s reputation as a bastion of Cantonese cuisine, Chef Lau is surprisingly playful in his approach. One of his newer creations, the Lobster Trio, illustrates this method well. “I made a Portuguese-style baked lobster tart with avocado stuffing, a steamed lobster dumpling with XO sauce, and lastly, a fried lobster and radish pastry. This results in different mouthfeels, flavours and techniques, all from one main ingredient,” he says.
Given Yan Toh Heen’s newly picturesque surrounds and his creative plating techniques, what does Chef Lau make of the multitudes of Instagram-happy diners who have descended on the restaurant? “It’s great! If it wasn’t for this culture, you wouldn’t be able to share the wonderful dining experience you just had. Sharing makes the world better.”
And it’s exactly that young-at-heart frame of mind that has kept this generations-old establishment at the forefront of one of the world’s most exciting culinary cities, on the shores of an ever-shifting harbour.
This story was originally published in our October 2018 issue as ‘A Familiar Flavour.’ For more design and lifestyle coverage in Hong Kong and abroad, grab a copy of our 38th Anniversary October issue, on newsstands now.
Photography: Edgar Tapan
Art direction: May Lau