CHRISTINA KO reports on the barrage of restaurants opening this summer and beyond
IN A DINING market as sophisticated as Hong Kong’s, we know that the openings by Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay – both making first forays into the city – are not the ones to anticipate. Although Ramsay’s efforts back home have always been well received, the larger-than-life chef’s choice of partner in Hong Kong – restaurant-group behemoth Dining Concepts, known for its factory-like ability to manufacture cookie-cutter celebrity-chef establishments with great efficiency but little delicacy – leaves many worried for the quality of food.
And Oliver’s first Asian foothold in Singapore has been billed as underwhelming, though the Naked Chef has always been more respected for his television programmes than his dining outlets. We remain fans of his quick home dinners, even if he’s so busy cooking them up it seems he had no time to visit Hong Kong for the opening of his own restaurant.
On the international front, those two are still stealing headlines, but on home turf, there are other names making waves. Tom Aikens stopped in Hong Kong in June to consult on The Pawn’s new menu, taking up a two-night guest residency at sister venue The Principal while he was in town, one of the more stellar efforts in the latter’s run of pop-ups (past culinary visitors included his protégé Tom Sellers and fellow Brit Jason Atherton). The chef, who’s had a rocky time with finances for his own restaurants back home in the UK, is nonetheless wellrespected, and will debut his new dishes when The Pawn reopens in October.
Yet another Brit has been quietly and regularly jet-setting to Hong Kong: Rowley Leigh of Café Anglaise, the long-time cookery correspondent for the Financial Times. He lends his expertise to The Continental, which also opens in October, in the former Domani venue now managed by Swire, which owns the site.
“The English are still too mean,” he postulates as the reason for the influx of British culinary talent in Hong Kong. “People think nothing of spending £800 on a Prada handbag, but if you went down for dinner for four and spent £800, there’s something innate in the English psyche which says that would be a waste of money.
“[In Hong Kong] there’s more human resources and there’s more energy, and there’s a much, much bigger dining public. I mean, English people have kitchens at home and things like that.” Proof of Leigh’s theory is in the pudding served at How to Spend It’s $10,000-a-head anniversary dinner with Ferran Adrià, cooked by his former student Jason Atherton at new PMQ hotspot Aberdeen Street Social, which offers Atherton’s unique Spanish-influenced cuisine in a democratised dining atmosphere.
Upstairs at PMQ, another Spaniard, Paolo Casagrande, is taking up space for Vasco, a Spanish fine-dining experience backed by Drawing Room Concepts. With the influx of culturally similar institutions having flooded the market in the last two years, from elBulli alums’ View 62 and Catalunya to El Quim de Boqueria offshoot Quemo and the Carina Lau-funded Tapagria and Zurriola, it would seem the Hong Kong market for Spanish fare is already saturated, but Drawing Room Concepts CEO Tony Cheng is unfazed.
“Although we’ll be classifying ourselves as Spanish fine dining, I think it’s fair to say that Paolo and Martin Beresategui’s culinary scope is well beyond that of Spain,” he says. “I would like to think it was my sincerity and good looks that attracted Paolo to Hong Kong. But in reality I think it was the opportunity to travel frequently to Asia and broaden his culinary horizons that really sold him. Paolo is growing fonder and fonder of Chinese food and is fascinated by Chinese ingredients and cooking techniques.”
He’s not the only one. Of all the big-name arrivals, the most bizarre is the Australian Chinese chef Jowett Yu, who moved to Hong Kong to open the non-traditional mod-Chinese Ho Lee Fook in conjunction with Black Sheep Restaurants, a hospitality group founded by Dining Concepts alum that’s amassed a fair few holdings within some two years of existence: Boqueria, La Vache!, Chôm Chôm and two branches of Motorino.
Yu’s unconventional approach to Chinese is not intuitively a good fit for the local market, which has thus far shunned the new Asian movement (Shore group’s Se Sa Me closed in less than a year, while Zuma and Nobu have failed to conjure the same It status that the chain restaurants enjoy in other markets). But that doesn’t mean he won’t buck the trend – his fellow Aussie David Thompson, after all, now holds the top-restaurant-in-Asia title for his authentic Thai interpretations at Nahm in Bangkok, another unlikely feat.
“Jow isn’t trying to reinvent Chinese cuisine or create a new trend,” explains Chris Mark, Black Sheep’s co-founder. “He just wants to cook food that he likes to eat and share that with Hong Kong diners.” And while Yu has cited Momofuku’s David Chang as a strong influence, the concept is, according to Mark, “distinctly Hong Kong”.
Privé Group is also risking it with a new modern-Asian venue, having ditched the lacklustre Masu, which offered solid food options but never gained real traction in the foodie community. In its place, Amazake, the izakaya with a twist, seems much more in line with the group’s other club holdings, Levels and the eponymous Privé, it being a drinking-focused enterprise, though the food – funky rolls, sticky chicken wings and surprisingly moreish takes on udon and fried rice – is lip-smacking good. Decorated with cartoony sumo-wrestler murals and equipped with its own in-house drinking-games manual, the izakaya will surely cannibalise some of the pool-shooting, dart-throwing Racks crowd, especially after hours, when it converts into a full-on games centre with beer pong and flip-cup set-ups.
“It made much more sense,” says Andrew Li, the group’s COO, “as we’re surrounded by four big clubs, all in close proximity. It’s natural for us to bring another pre-clubbing venue to the group.”
The revamp took place not long after the opening of elegant Nordicinfluenced Nur, the odd one out in the family, and precedes two even higher profile launches: along with Mira group, they will take over four floors in a Knutsford Terrace building to introduce new F&B concepts, and then there’s the reclamation of Privé’s original haven on Wyndham Street, after the closure of Socialito. Of the latter project, Li hints, “We’re looking at everything from lunch and dinner to brunch on weekends and, of course, late-night drinks. The venue has great presence and visibility on the street, so we want to utilise that to the best of our ability.”
While the Privé people fight to stay on brand, the Yardbird gang proves it’s no one- (or two-) trick pony with Sunday’s Grocery. The original Bridges Street yakitori shop continues to frustrate those who lack patience with its no-reservations policy and long lines (a pint of Hitachino does help pass the time) while higher-end Ronin sees steady reservations, so the next step, naturally, was to open … a bodega. In Kennedy Town. Of course, it’s a typically hipster translation of the concept, with some 50 Japanese whiskies stocked in the liquor shop and the likes of Korean Fried Chicken alongside falafels in a street-art-decorated venue.
If you think that’s a stretch, wait till you get a load of the latest brand to get in on the restaurant game – luxury watchmaker Franck Muller, which opened two dining outfits in its Sharp Street flagship boutique: Eighteen Sharp (Chinese) and Francesco by Franck Muller (Italian-Japanese). From a financial perspective, it isn’t going to be much of a boon for the bottom line, given the margins made on a single watch versus a $680-$1,888-a-head dinner at Eighteen Sharp, but the brand feels that it should welcome guests to its maison with a meal to complete the at-home experience.
But maybe it’s a smart move anyway – King of Causeway Bay Hysan Group has also diversified into the F&B business with the French restaurant Seasons by Olivier E., as it currently lacks a flagship haute dining venue within its malls, despite a tight lock on taitai spending. Smartly turning to the restaurant consultancy 1957 & Co., which runs An Nam and Gonpachi, it has managed to achieve a highvalue, high-end operation that’s thus far garnering good word of mouth, thanks to a shrewd pricing strategy and a thoughtful menu by the former head chef of L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon.
Then again, maybe the secret to a winning practice isn’t something dreamt up by branding experts or property analysts or even celebrity chefs. A butchery practice in Tin Wan exploded onto the scene last year with dry-aged steaks, a onetable private-dining venue and a three-month waiting list. The Butchers Club expanded into Wong Chuk Hang fashion warehouse Editus this year with more tables and a deli, and more recently, had the rather genius and only natural idea of using their secondary cuts of beef for patties. The Butchers Club Burgers now serves one product, a pretty mean bacon cheeseburger. We dare you to get in line.
+Prestige Hong Kong