To Hong Kong, with love. Or, con amore, since it’s resident Italian Lorenzo Antinori who’s behind Argo Cook Book, the new menu at the award-winning bar at the Four Seasons spotlighting Hong Kong’s epicurean traditions.
Lorenzo Antinori looks quite different behind a fired-up stovetop.
“We’re in a kitchen because I believe bartending is very much like cooking,” he says, indulgently dressed up for the occasion in chef ’s whites and a pleated toque. The occasion, which necessitated a backstage field trip into one of the Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong’s kitchens, preludes none other than the highly anticipated launch of Argo Cook Book: the second season of the award-winning bar’s drinks programme.
“For me, a cookbook is about storytelling, about flavours, about techniques” Antinori – now fully immersed in his chef de cuisine persona – continues, “but it’s also about the people.”
There’s a sweeping deluge of things that define Hong Kong and, by extension, someone who identifies as a Hong Konger. We’re big fans of queuing up, the “what for” secondary. Big fans of speed-walking across MTR platforms. Big fans of christening trams “ding dings”. But by and large, in our smorgasbord of a city rife with transient transplants, permanent transplants and those who’ve just never left, there’s nothing quite as definitively Hong Kong as the first bite, all crumbles, into an oven-fresh pineapple bun; a satisfied sip of yuenyeung from a red-piped cha chaan teng mug that’s seen better days; the sight of a swinging “half-fat-half-skinny” slab of honey-glazed char siu, suspended before a decades-old chopping board. Because food, with all its connective, communal leanings, has always sat pitter-pattering as the heartbeat of culture, as a digest of latent meaning spoken not in words but in flavours. In ingredients. In preparation that’s been passed down and passed on through the kneading hands of grandmothers and their grandmothers.
Antinori, who dedicates Argo Cook Book as a love letter to the city he now calls home, has whittled down – alongside his steadfast Argo bar team for which he attributes to have created the majority of the menu – Hong Kong’s palate into six ingredients: soybean, apricot kernel, XO sauce, vegan char siu, black vinegar and aged tea. Each of the six is made into two cocktails of entirely different flavour profiles, which count 12 on the brand-new drinks programme.
“These cocktails are about a dish or a technique,” Antinori says, “but they’re also about relationships and collaborations we’ve established.” A visit to Chai Wan, where chef Vicky Lau’s tribute to soy, Ān, is manufactured, solidified Antinori’s desire to work with soybeans; on the menu, the ingredient has materialised as Magic Bean, a soy-based take on a Bloody Mary and the Dynasty Old Fashioned, a creamy, velvety, soy-pulp-infused concoction. Then there’s the Golden Orb beer, released in tandem with Carbon Brews, made with ingredients largely foraged from Lantau Island. And, closer to Argo, vegan char siu, ideated with assistance from Lung King Heen’s chef Tak.
And while Antinori’s, shudder, love for pineapple on pizza are well documented, the vegan char siu’s exchange of pork for the fruit, as he explains, came from a late-night YouTube spiral. “We swapped the pork for pineapple,” he says, “because pineapple is a fruit that’s very easy to manipulate. And I was inspired when I saw this video of someone disguising a watermelon as a ham.” Argo has also long upheld a no-meat, no-seafood by-product criterion, which makes the pineapple an important vehicle for inclusivity.
“Now, when people tell me, ‘Oh, but it doesn’t taste like char siu,’ well, of course,” Antinori says, laughing. “Pork and pineapple are different. But for us, it’s more about the application of technique, of different interpretations. This is our way of celebrating these traditional dishes.” Caramelised and deceptively meaty, the vegan char siu is distilled and sampled in Argo Cook Book’s Hellfire Club, a decidedly tropical salute to Cuba’s Hotel Nacional and BBQ & Tonic, a barbequed take on the gin and tonic.
Another core-six ingredient, the aged tea stemmed from a tea-smoked duck dish Antinori particularly remembered enjoying from The Chairman two years back. He’s transfigured the age-old technique for pears on the menu’s Old Tea House Gimlet. Then there’s black vinegar-washed Manhattans. Lazy Suzy, galvanised by the building blocks of smashed cucumber salad. A Negroni stirred, salivatingly, with XO vermouth. All nudges and nods to the exacting wealth of Hong Kong’s palate, nostalgic and new in equal, delicious measures.
“When you talk about cocktails with tea, or Chinese almond, or even this idea of vegan char siu, people can relate to it,” Antinori says. “There’s this curiosity. Instead of the very dramatic, ‘We’re doing a menu about things that will disappear tomorrow,’ this second season is a bit more fun. At the end of the day, it’s just cocktails, right? We’re not here to save the world.”
Although, precisely to the contrary, it might just be a drink that makes old new; that makes old shiny; that makes old stare down the future not with fear but with a tender, thoughtful caress that might just end up saving the world.
Visit Argo at Four Seasons Hong Kong, 8 Finance Street, Central, Hong Kong, +852 3196 8882