I always follow Henry’s lead in culinary matters, he has so many ideas. Since I moved to Hong Kong he’s been quite my mentor, really. I’m basically an unadventurous sort of chap, but once in a while I do like things spiced up. And I can always count on Henry to tickle my tastebuds.
Today I get a call from him bright and early. “Let’s do lunch,” comes his cheerful voice, and I say, “Righty-ho!” before I’ve even had time to think. Before I know it I’m getting out of a taxi in the L-. Road in Wanchai.
The area is thick with girlie bars, but at this time of the day most of them are shuttered or pretending to be pubs. Only the odd Filipina yawning as she staggers out of a doorway hints at the area’s main business line.
Now I see Henry. It’s easy to spot him – in his shades and a tight tee-shirt he looks like a film star. A mamasan hails him from a doorway. A passing callgirl gives him a smile.
You might think Henry would be smiling too. Not a bit of it. As I come up, he says with a frown, “You know what these women do? Should be banned!”
“Oh, come,” I say. I try to put in a good word for the girls because they’re cheerful and what they do isn’t exactly fun. But there’s no changing Henry’s mind. He’s still sounding off when we reach the restaurant.
Rather to my disappointment, it’s a traditional Chinese roast meat place. Through the window we can see the carvery, with browned geese hanging on hooks and a cheerful cook hacking a carcass with a chopper. We walk in, and are greeted by the aroma of roast pork spiced with aniseed.
The owner rushes up, and Henry introduces me.
“Delighted, delighted!” the little man says. “I have something special for you, fresh in this morning!” Taking Henry by the arm, he leads us up the stairs.
On the next floor we’re met with little cries by two Filipinas still in their working clothes. But the owner waves them back. They join a group of similar females who are chattering and preening themselves like a flock of birds.
The owner turns to me proudly. “Nothing but organic food here. Freshly killed.”
Now I’m starting to feel squeamish. But Henry looks on approvingly. He is not squeamish at all.
“Have you made up your mind?” the owner asks. “Or do you need a closer look?”
Henry gives a little wave of the hand. You wouldn’t believe how relaxed he is!
“And how would you like the meat done?”
Henry draws the owner aside and they speak in whispers. Then the little chap goes briskly off, I suppose to give instructions to the kitchen.
Putting an arm around my shoulder, Henry takes me to our table. Unusually for a Chinese restaurant there are windows along one wall overlooking the street below. I can see punters going about their business, a mamasan lighting joss sticks on the pavement.
“I saw you were a little uncomfortable just now,” Henry says to me in a kindly tone.
I nod, grateful for his understanding. I’m actually quite shaken up.
“It’s entirely natural,” Henry says soothingly. “I felt the same at first. But you get used to it. The thing is, you have to eat, and for one thing to eat, another thing must be eaten.”
I can’t argue with that. It’s some sort of Buddhist philosophy anyway.
“Look at you – you’re good enough to eat yourself!” Henry touches my cheek. I am a little bit plump, it’s perfectly true, and I can’t help blushing.
“And the beauty of eating here,” Henry warms to his theme, “is that everything’s recycled. Look!” He points out of the window.
I look. Just below, there are two women in short skirts walking arm-in-arm.
“We’re helping to clean up the neighbourhood!” Henry beams.
His good spirits are infectious. I raise my glass – which Henry has thoughtfully filled with red wine. He chinks my glass with his: “To the community!” We drink, and I have to say the wine goes down exceedingly well.
By now I’m no longer nervous. In fact, I’m positively hungry! Henry chats about other restaurants he has been to. He used to be an investment banker, I think, and he doesn’t need to work anymore.
Eventually, the meal comes.
The first course is a splendid bowl of soup, with the bones included. It reminds me of traditional Chinese chicken soup – you know, the one with the claws clinging to the bowl like a child’s fingers. It’s quite delicious.
And now – the main dish! It’s a magnificent roast in Chinese banqueting style, the back scorched dark brown. Not one but two waitresses are needed to bring it on. The mouth is set with a red light bulb and the ears with cherries. I usually find that sort of thing over the top, but today it strikes just the right note.
Now a white-gloved waiter is serving us. He neatly separates the crackling from the flesh, like roast pork. We crunch into it with gusto.
The roast is enormous. Henry and I eat and eat until we can eat no more. Seeing us stop, the owner comes over anxiously. But we assure him that it is excellent. “Melts in the mouth,” Henry says, and I add my own compliments.
I can see how pleased the owner is. He fetches a large doggie bag, and loads the remainder of the dish into it himself.
Eventually, the meal is over, and I’m ready to stagger home. “Until next time,” Henry says to me with a wave. I wave back, and collapse into a taxi.
And do you know, the doggie bag lasts me all week!