Essentially, it’s supposed to be red wine with steak, and a decent bottle of white with fish, but Prestige magazine’s recent champagne-pairing soirée, held at the splendid Steak House Winebar + Grill in the basement of the InterContinental Hong Kong, broke all the rules – and popped many bottles of of Perrier-Jouët bubbles along the way. The finest table in the house, with a sensational harbour view, had been commandeered for the private dinner, with Liana Young Yeung, Connie Wei Yang and Anne Wang Liu taking their seats for an exquisite meal to remember.
Although each lady has been invited along for her distinctive and sparkling personality, the three have much in common. As well as displaying a perfectly sync’d wardrobe and a fondness for fashionably uncomfortable designer shoes, all are co-chairs of the Nutcracker Christmas Benefit, an annual festive event that recently celebrated its eighth year, and from which moneys raised fund the Hong Kong Ballet, ensuring dancers benefit from training, support and equipment, and finance artist exchanges to further their education.
Coordinating with these gallivanting ladies has not been easy – we’ve been trying to get together for weeks. Finally, just ahead of the Chinese New Year break, before they all scuttle off on various tropical-resort and skiing mini-breaks, we meet for a rewarding evening of first-class wining and dining; of confessions and gossip, of fun and fizz.
“It all started with my daughter,” Connie says, kicking off our conversation and explaining how she became involved with the Nutcracker Christmas Benefit while we sample the 2002 Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque Blanc de Blancs. “She loved ballet from an early age. One of the board of governors invited me to join about six years ago, and as my daughter fell in love with the ballet, we ended up being involved every year. I never did ballet when I was young. I was into disco. My sons came to see their sister perform, but otherwise they have no patience or interest in ballet. They wanted to go see Iron Man!”
Liana continues in a similar vein. “My daughter loves ballet and so do I,” she says. “We’ve been to the benefit as guests for many years, and it’s a great honour to be one of the co-chairs. My daughter is taking ballet classes now and I took ballet class when I was young.” Then, to everyone’s delight, Liana swan-dives into a surprise confession: “I’ve recently started doing adult ballet class. It’s great exercise!”
Anne was asked to get involved with the Hong Kong Ballet 10 years ago, taking the plunge two years later and joining the committee. She became co-chair in 2012, and is now involved in the board of governors and co-chair of the guild.
“One of the many benefits of being so involved behind the scenes is, of course, getting a peek behind the curtains,” she says. “If you’re a guild member, you get backstage access and see how hard they work – the dancers, the choreographers. Every guild member can see, on special occasions, the dress rehearsals.
“The kids get very excited as they get to see all the props, the masks, the costumes. For the members, we get to witness such intense work, see the injuries, how hard it really is. The minute the dancers finish rehearsal, so many of them have to go to physio. They are like pro athletes and they have that same dedication and acute concentration.”
Do the husbands attend? “Good question,” declares Connie. “Well, it’s getting harder and harder.”
Soon the starter arrives: Spanish tuna tartare and Italian imperial Oscietra caviar with yuzu dressing and homemade blinis. With the din of the evening rising, we think we hear our waiter say that “truffle bread” is on its way. “Is that a thing?” asks Anne, and menus are hunted down. “Oh, it was charcoal-grilled bread, not truffle bread,” she explains. “It’s … delicious!”
Before our first flutes are drained, I ask if the ladies can remember their first glass of bubbly. “I’m sure it was 20-something years ago,” says Connie as we peruse the champagne pairings that have been composed for the evening. “I was a very good girl – I didn’t try till I was in college, I think. I liked it almost immediately. Over time you get to appreciate different champagnes. My husband likes all kinds, so through him I’ve learned to appreciate variety.”
Anne is surprised at Connie’s confession, and that she discovered champagne so late. “Really, you were that good?” she asks incredulously. “I probably snuck into my parents’ bar and tried it as a teen!”
Next, the wild-catch jumbo shrimp cocktail arrives with such fanfare that it’s hard not to snap away with our smartphones (though we welcome the trend for banning food photography in refined restaurants). Personally, however, I prefer the warm, comforting deliciousness of the New Orleans-style crab cake with tartar sauce, complemented by the light 2008 Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque.
Fine champagne is so much more than flavour and effervescence, of course, and intrinsically connected to memories. We all pop open the bubbly for weddings, on Valentine’s Day, at graduation, and many turning points in our lives are celebrated with plenty of golden bubbles. “My most memorable champagne moment,” says Liana, “was my then-boyfriend [now husband] popped a very nice bottle of champagne on our romantic getaway while we were still dating.”
For Connie, champagne is most associated with weddings and private parties at home. “My husband always likes to serve the very best when friends come over,” she says, and Annie recalls her personal link with Prestige magazine, bubbles and flora: “A few years ago, I remember going to a library of a hotel and I remember the floral motif and glasses,” she says. “It was one of the first Perrier- Jouët champagne events and they decorated the entire venue with fresh flowers – and it was spectacular!”
Speaking of spectacular, the petit filet mignon arrives from the restaurant’s charcoal grill, and it’s poetry on a plate. Connie has opted for the lighter Chilean fillet of seabass served with potato gratin and vegetables, and declares, “That looks amazing!”
And Anne chimes in, “It’s not too late to change your order!” All, however, stick with their selections, and nobody is disappointed. Hardly surprising – when Prestige editors were recently asked about the best steak they’d ever enjoyed, The Steak House Winebar + Grill came out on tops, and we pose a similar question to the ladies. “Within Asia, I’ve had the best meals in Japan, Korea and Thailand,” says Anne. “We have a place in Phuket and we were just there for New Year’s Eve. I often think our family flies down there just to eat food!”
Connie says her family also has a penchant for Korea and Japan. “Korean food is great but its not refined,” she opines, “whereas in Japan, it’s exquisite. When I go to Seoul, I have to bring things back from Korea upon request from my children – they give me a list! They love this particular beef that’s marinated with Coca-Cola. With Cherry Coke, in fact. It’s so tender and sweet, but the kids love it!”
Our steak today, however, needs neither embellishment nor garnish and is charred to perfection, though behind-the scenes sommeliers have provided the 2006 Perrier- Jouët Belle Epoque Rosé to ramp up the festival of flavours. Rosé and steak might seem like an odd couple, but it’s a marriage that works.
Finally, to wrap up an evening peppered by so much delightful conversation, the table is cleared and our waiters ask us to lean away to facilitate the arrival of a tray of Alaska on Fire – pièce de résistance of the hotel’s admired executive pastry chef, Cyril Dupuis. There’s a “wow” moment when the oddly shaped igloo of vanilla ice cream, orange sherbert, sponge cake and meringue is flambéed with warm rum. It’s definitely one for Instagram Stories. However, the Trio – strawberry jelly, mascarpone cream and crumble, with a side of vanilla ice cream – wins the day and proves a culinary contradiction in terms – seemingly both light and heavy at the same time.
As we draw the curtains on a spectacular dinner, the ladies graciously thank the hotel team. “Its so different now as we travel with kids, so we can’t really take them to Michelin-star or fine-dining restaurants,” Connie says. “A long dinner with wine pairing is impossible with impatient children, so this is a welcome, wonderful change in routine.”