Yongfu: Tasty Ningbo fare, Awkward experience (8.0)

Upon arrival at its ground floor entrance on Lockhart Road, there is an odd sense of awkwardness in this newly opened establishment in Wan Chai. The décor and bulky furniture all feel a tad clumsy for the limited space of the restaurant’s main dining room that seems only to accommodate five 2- or 4-seater tables. Servers at the door appear to abstain from greeting its customers walking through the entrance, as if to wait to confirm whether their guest is mandarin speaking. Make no mistake, however, about hospitality at Yongfu. From the reservation down to the smallest details, servers are meticulous, dutiful, and exceedingly friendly.

Hospitality aside, the out-of-place feeling continues when you look at their menu. For a meal at this price, you’d expect a menu without typos, but here they are abound and occasionally so wrong that you might get prawns thinking you ordered cuttlefish, if you read from the English translation (“雪菜炒蝦仁” is “Fried Cuttlefish with Salted Vegetable“). Some are halfway translated, presumably awaiting further research but forgotten and missed before going to print. There was a sense that we were tourists in some restaurant in the mainland.

And the menu is terribly long and not categorized in the most user friendly way. More choice is not necessarily more valuable to decision makers. I would definitely recommend slimming down the menu, increasing the number of “signature” dishes—currently only 3 out of the 123 dishes that we can choose from (97 on the à la carte, and 25 from the seasonal menu) have a “signature dish” icon next to it. That does not make for easy picking, especially when diners have to select only a small handful from a large list of inadequately described dishes (inadequate at least for those inexperienced in Ningbo cuisine). Not to mention that a kitchen is rarely equipped to offer so many dishes for a small restaurant, which inevitably leads to waitresses telling you that many of the dishes you’d have liked to order are “out of stock”.

Other small issues include a freezing room temperature that is made to be uncomfortably cold for those who are not laboring, a toilet lid that is deliberately stuck to the wall with thick tape to keep it open (for whatever reason) which felt very unhygienic in the midst of the covid pandemic. All in all, I felt that nothing in particular about the entire dining experience was made to be very practical or pleasant indeed, something that I would have expected for a fine dining restaurant.

Now, onto the food.

The six hundred or so islands that form Ningbo are strategically located at the intersection of multiple trade routes and as a result the city has developed quite a reputation for its food (sometimes called “Yong” food), an important part of Zhejiang cuisine and centers heavily on delicacies found along its coastlines and in the nearby rivers. Yellow croaker, river eel, soft-shell turtle and crab are found featuring many of its dishes, many of which require meticulous preparation and the freshest food sources. It’s been a while I have been able to go to the mainland due to the pandemic, and I was really missing the distinctively briny-sweet flavors of both fresh, lightly cooked as well as the deeply aromatic, braised dishes of the cuisine.

The two of us ordered a range of dishes here at Yongfu, including marinated mud snail that is a Ningbo classic (it’s raw!), braised yellow croaker (another local classic), fried cuttlefish with beltfish (cuttlefish being one of my favorite seafoods), braised fish maw, deep-fried yellow croaker spring rolls (a dish you’d see regularly on dinner tables in Ningbo homes), steamed vegetable and black truffle buns (something for Instagram), a sausage, as well as fermented glutinous rice soup for dessert (yes, the kind that made its way to Shanghai cuisine).

To say the meal was utterly impressive would be an exaggeration, but I thought the quality of it was uncompromising, the food was as “authentic” as it gets in Hong Kong (in my personal and humble opinion), and the kitchen had really put their heart to it. And boy, did the food arrive swiftly. Everything turned up so soon, quite literally within three to five minutes, something that we deeply appreciate. Food was fresh and tender, not overly greased, perfectly seasoned (perhaps made to be less salty than Ningbo locals would be accustomed to) and mostly quite delightful. Presentation was impeccable.

And to the final question that hangs above everyone’s heads: its unbelievably hefty price tag. Is it worth it, you ask? To which we are inclined to say: No, it isn’t, really. While we may be comfortable spending the same amount on a meal anywhere else, we did not feel that we had our value for money at Yongfu. It is definitely a place for more special occasions or for when someone else or shareholders of some company are footing your bill. Those are my two pennies, anyway.

Food Rundown

Marinated Mud Snail with Salt 三北鹹泥螺, $198
Very delicious and fresh start to the meal. But mind you, they are raw.

Braised Wax Gourd 水晶冬瓜, $128
This is chilled and comes in a pool of aromatic sesame oil. The gourd has also been marinated in some vinaigrette. It is tremendously appetizing. We finished it all in a heartbeat.

Braised Mid-sized “East Sea” Yellow Croaker 紅燒東海中黃魚, $598
This was very nicely done. The fish was tender and fresh, and the sauce was perfect. We just thought this was overpriced for what it was.

Braised Fish Maw 黃燜花膠, $598
The sauce was heavenly, and the maw was chewy and definitely a male.

Steamed Pomegranate-Shaped Bun Stuff with Black Truffle 黑松露野菜石榴包, $38 each
These look much nicer than they taste. I mean, they taste quite fine, but nothing much about it seems to remind me of Ningbo food since you just taste quite a bit of black truffle.

Fried Cuttlefish with Beltfish 炒魷魚, $598
The cuttlefish was one of my favorite (it’s on the seasonal menu). The cuttlefish was flash-fried so they were so tender and the portion was super generous.

Deep-fried Yellow Croaker Spring Rolls 腐皮黃金卷, $398
Deep-fried yellow croaker spring rolls are possibly the most characteristic dish in a Ningbo home. If someone on your table likes some crunch, go for it.

Original Taste Sausage 本味香腸 $168
This was OK.

Sweetened Walnut in Fermented Glutinous Rice Soup 核桃紅曲酒釀羹, $58 each
Standard taste. Not too sweet, and certainly very pretty.

Yong Fu 甬府
20-24 Lockhart Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong
$$$$, Ningbo, Zhejiang, Chinese