This is Hong Hong. Three seconds after Dominique Ansel’s cronut became an Internet sensation a few years back, local bakeries were peddling their versions, named “cro-dos” or “kronuts” to avoid copyright infringement. You name the food trend, it’s been borrowed: whether it’s Korean fried chicken, 63-degree eggs, infused alcohol, steamed buns that “vomit” custard or Spanish bikini sandwiches.
In a city known for its ever-changing restaurant scene, copycats run rampant. It’s little wonder that more and more restaurants are setting up shop themselves on our shores, rather than allowing local operators to take their ideas and run with it (cough, Cali Mex, cough). And with pop-up concepts, food fairs and four-hands dinners more in vogue than ever, it’s easy to test-drive concepts with minimal risk. Don’t be surprised if Duck & Waffle – which has appeared at Taste of Hong Kong restaurant festival and had a successful guest stint at Ozone – will soon search for a permanent spot, or if Peruvian culinary genius Virgilio Martinez, of top-ranked Central restaurant in Lima, puts his name on a hoarding, following two hot-ticket runs at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong.
In the last half year alone, the food scene has been dominated by overseas imports. American sports-bar chain Hooters made a quiet debut on Wyndham Street late last year, its business hampered by a late-arriving liquor licence, though word is that the group has plans to open five outlets across the city. The wings may be rumoured to be sensational, but their allure has yet to tempt anyone in the Prestige Hong Kong office – and we’re known for our base lunch-hour instincts (our regulars include The Diner and Rummin’ Tings – don’t judge).
More up our alley was the box of doughnuts that arrived at our office from J CO, the Indonesia-founded answer to Krispy Kreme, which has just opened up in Wanchai on Hennessy Road. Despite the circular pastries being far from fashionable – you have the fat-cop stereotype to thank for that, unfortunately – these are still dreamy in small doses. “Let’s walk around the white desert,” reads the website description of one particular ware, “glide gently into the sweet kaya filling and land right on top of smooth coconut flakes”. Another flavour, called Oreology, is accompanied by this text: “Biology = Lousy. Geology = Sleepy. Oreology = Yummy!” Forget doughnuts, we need to hire this copywriter.
While getting a taste of Indonesia in Wanchai, you can also stop in for a little Sichuan spice, courtesy of Shanghai’s Deng G Chengdu Bistro & Baijiu Bar. Part of the Elite Concepts family, which runs Ye Shanghai and Nanhai No. 1, Deng G holds two floors in a building on Queen’s Road East – the lower floor hosting restaurant diners and the upper serving bar patrons. Known in Shanghai for his superlative Sichuan cooking, which goes easy on the oil and with cleaner flavour profiles, Deng Huadong has separated his menu by taste, rather than course or ingredient – there are expected categories like mala or sweet and sour, then there are sections like lychee or dry pot, which may be more confusing to novices. Stick to signatures like sliced pork with garlic and chilli, braised crab with preserved vegetables, and crispy fish in spicy sauce, and you won’t go wrong.
From Shanghai, you’re only a stone’s throw from Bangkok – a five-minute jaunt from Deng G is Apinara, a Thai import in Pacific Place that’s a collaboration between Nara Thai Cuisine and local restaurateur Pearl Shek. Frequent travellers to Bangkok will no doubt have spotted outlets of the Nara chain (it’s present in Central Embassy, EmQuartier and Erawan mall), and possibly even Apinara itself, which is in CentralWorld shopping centre. Although the food menus at Apinara and Nara are fairly similar, Apinara builds on that base with a thriving bar area and a focus on Thai-influenced mixology. If Thai restaurants are a dime a dozen in Hong Kong, Thai bars are a rarer find, and this one comes with drinks like Are You Tired Honey (Mekhong, lime, honey, cinnamon and mint) and Siam Myth (vodka, pineapple, lime, chilli and lemon grass), along with exciting spirits from the land of smiles, like Sang Som whiskey or Mekhong rum, as well as Chalawan Pale Ale, a lychee and citrus-touched beer.
If drinking inside a shopping mall isn’t quite your pace, then perhaps a trip to London is in order. The team behind Hong Kong’s dragon-i has always managed to serve up some pretty slick club concepts, but food hasn’t necessarily been its strong suit (witness the demise of Busy Suzie at Heritage 1881, and of the entire chain of misocool ramen bars). So the fact that Cassio serves “Food by Barrafina” has been emblazoned everywhere possible and appropriate. Barrafina, for those not in the know, is a series of Spanish tapas bars in London, one of the earliest in the city to pioneer the hype-creating no-reservations rule, trusting a buzzy atmosphere and killer cuisine to draw in the customers. From one venue launched in 2007, Barrafina now counts three branches in London and one in Sydney. While the food at Cassio isn’t a one-to-one replica of what you could have in the London restaurants, there’s a good deal of overlap – look for its signature prawn croquetas, stuffed courgette flowers and a stunning heritage tomato salad.
The import movement isn’t restricted to more mass-market concepts. Hong Kong loves nothing more than a fine dine, and Alain Ducasse’s Spoon at the InterContinental Hong Kong has shuttered its doors to make room for another Ducasse enterprise: Rech, which is a seafood-based concept created in 1920s Paris by Alsatian Adrien Rech. A grocery store in its original incarnation, Rech grew into a café with customers clamouring for its fresh shellfish, and was reborn under the capable hands of Ducasse just under a decade ago. This opening, which comes in the middle of this month, heralds the debut overseas outpost, and will feature the likes of pan-seared line-caught sole and baked John Dory with baby Swiss chard and confit lemon, always centred on the day’s freshest catch (don’t miss dessert, either, like the signature XL éclair).
Seasonal ingredients also form the basis of the menu at La Bombance, the Tokyo-based kaiseki restaurant that premiered in Causeway Bay’s new V Point tower mid last year. While it’s hardly new, it certainly is noteworthy, all the more because its arrival was so discreet that many hardcore foodies still aren’t aware of its existence. The original opened in the Japanese capital in 2004, serving painstakingly prepared set dinners that have charmed the Tokyo Michelin-guide inspectors, which has in turn rendered the restaurant near impossible to book nowadays. So while it’s likely that locals are loving the opportunity to experience a Tokyo Michelin-starred kaiseki meal by chef Makoto Okamoto without a long-haul flight or a long-term wait, we may find soon that visitors from Japan relish dining there too – the restaurant recommends only two or three days’ advance booking for small parties coming in on weekdays, and three or four days for weekends.
The beginning of the year tends to see fewer food concepts opening, though January 10 marked the first day of business for Imperial Treasure Fine Chinese Cuisine, whose name is fairly explanatory of its menu, and is backed by the Imperial Treasure group from Singapore. The Hong Kong outpost is located in Tsim Sha Tsui’s One Peking, and though it may seem superfluous to add another Chinese restaurant to an area that already houses the three-Michelin-starred T’ang Court, the two-Michelin-starred Yan Toh Heen plus a handful of other single-starred concerns (Ah Yat Harbour View, Fu Ho, Spring Moon), Imperial Treasure’s Shanghai venue charmed inspectors enough to earn two Michelin stars in the city’s inaugural guide this year.
The rest of 2017 also looks promising – the rumour mill has been working overtime speculating when Yannick Alleno will finally stake claim to a spot here, or if there’s truth to the talk that New York bar Please Don’t Tell (PDT) has plans for permanence in the 852, or if the much-vaunted Soho House will at last make a splash in the city. Of course, the conjecture is half the fun now, isn’t it?