Hubert Burda Media

Meat-free Munching in the Fragrant Harbour

It’s been a long time coming, but the health-food movement has finally hit Hong Kong’s fine-dining scene.

If you quizzed the Prestige team a few years ago on our favourite lunch hangout, it would have been The Diner. Greasy, tasty burgers oozing fat juice, dressed in petticoats of cheese underneath fat and fluffy buns. French fries dusted in herbs. Coleslaw that’s more mayo than vegetable. And only a minute’s jaunt from the office!

But it’s 2017, and now we’re more often found lining up for a takeaway salad box at Fresca on Wyndham Street, or loitering outside Mana! Fast Slow Food, our beady eyes set intently on the buzzer that indicates our Nirvana wraps are ready.

That food group – icky vegetables – that was once a glutton’s kryptonite is now more than ever precious stuff. And if it’s organic, too? Shots for everyone! (Wheatgrass, not vodka, of course.)

Salad bars mushroomed in the city a few years ago, and the juice-cleanse heyday came and went with all its proponents and antagonists. Farmers’ markets and organic-produce shops aren’t as scarce as they once were, and you can’t swing a corner in Central without hitting some promo poster for a healthy lunch set. The hold-out sector has always been haute cuisine, with its unethically delicious foie gras, artfully dry-aged imported meats and fresh-caught seafood. It’s understandable: in a game that’s all about margins, you can mark up a hunk of panda or a kakapo wing that’s travelled by plane to the SAR, or even a cup of coffee that’s come to you via a civet cat’s digestive system, but how do you justify a hefty price tag for a handful of kale that’s been picked from the garden out on the balcony? Damn that locavore trend!

Yet things are a-changin’. While seated at a corner table at Alain Passard’s L’Arpège late last year, which is known for its exemplary vegetarian tasting menu, a Texan gentleman and his wife exclaimed in delight when the chef appeared in the restaurant during the lunch rush (or as rushed as you can get when everyone is having the same 14-course degustation). The Texan proclaimed he’d watched the Chef’s Table: France documentary about Passard so many times he’d lost count. He proceeded to accost various members of the waitstaff with his voracious mirth, to their enjoyment and chagrin (we are, after all, in Paris, where it’s always more chic to stay silent). When Texans are going nuts about leafy produce instead of monumental cuts of meat, you know the invasion of the vegetable movement is unstoppable; L’Arpège, which has served an animal-free tasting menu since 2001, placed 12th on this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, announced last month.

Spanish tomato at Mercedes Me

In Hong Kong, the upmarket establishment Arcane launched a Meat Free Monday seven-course degustation earlier this year, attempting to sway the omnivorous into more virtuous eating habits with a vegetarian lullaby. Shane Osborn, the restaurant’s chef-patron, who took London’s Pied-a-Terre to Michelin-starred acclaim during his tenure in the British capital, is known for his affinity for Japanese ingredients (though he grows some of his own stuff on the restaurant terrace). His special menu is bookended by delightful produce from that country, starting with a Japanese winter tomato with spiced aubergine, sour cream and salad of soft herbs; and ending with Japanese winter strawberries with rhubarb, vanilla ice cream and Muscat grape consommé. Lest meat eaters object, the mains are hearty still – a butternut squash ravioli, a warm cauliflower salad and a poached Taiyouran egg with vegetables make up bulkier middle courses.

His concept isn’t so much based around catering to global health trends as it is to giving customers an experience that’s customised for diet preferences and restrictions, without forsaking flavour. For World Allergy Week last month, Osborn was eager to pronounce his restaurant fully adaptable to any intolerances, no matter how seemingly unsurmountable: “I’ve had to use tamari [gluten-free] soy sauce for people who have coeliac’s disease,” he says. “We’ve had a few people say that they’re allergic to garlic and salt, and we adjust the dishes accordingly and guide the guest to which dishes will taste best without these ingredients.” If you can prep sans salt, then what obstacle is removing meat?

Mercedes Me has also jumped on the veggie-centric bandwagon, introducing a Green Monday menu that, funnily enough, is available all days of the week. The Spanish-influenced venue is already known for a mean tartare, with the raw beef and egg yolk replaced by beetroot and mango respectively, for a dish that’s faithful to the original without trying too hard.  

It’s not all seriousness and sanctimony. Most people either love or love to hate Grassroots Pantry, one of the city’s first all-veg-all-the-time concepts, but whether the food floats your boat or not, the restaurant and its chef, Peggy Chan, have a good time doing what they do. For Valentine’s Day, Grassroots hosted a one-off ’90s junk food tasting menu, including healthy reincarnations of sacrilegious snacks like Twinkies, Rice Krispie treats and microwaved pizza pockets.  To celebrate Earth Hour, there was a six-course candlelit dinner featuring things like an unagi maki made of “cashew eel”. 

When Vicky Lau moved her Tate Dining Room to the space formerly occupied by The Space on Hollywood Road, she launched two tasting flights, distinguished by the presence and the absence of meat. “We’re meeting more and more vegetarians every day at our restaurants, and I’m also very interested in organic produce. [Thus far] around two people will order the vegetarian menu per evening – they’re mostly people looking to try something different, not necessarily vegetarians,” says Lau. 

“Most of the people I talk to are open to trying the vegetarian menu,” she continues. “The majority of customers understand that it is one of the focuses in the future of food.” While her eat-everything menu takes diners on a journey through Lau’s own culinary experiences, and includes such innovations as a Chiu Chow soy-braised duck with foie gras mousse, the Symphony of the Gardens menu includes innovative dishes that don’t sound at all like a side show: an Ode to Cold (truffle vinaigrette with soba noodle and brioche with fermented tofu butter), Ode to Origin (salted egg cream with egg croquette and sweetcorn velouté) and Ode to Local Vegetables (green-tea dumpling with mustard greens and watercress coconut cream). 

The sea of change hasn’t just taken place on the streets. Publisher Phaidon – behind beautiful tomes by chefs such as Rene Redzepi of Noma and Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana – is releasing two books this month that speak to your inner saladista. The enfant terrible of the vegetable movement, Jeremy Fox, has authored On Vegetables, detailing recipes he’s used since becoming a vegetable-centric chef – first with the Napa restaurant Ubuntu, then with Rustic Canyon in LA’s Santa Monica – such as borage and ricotta dumplings in mushroom broth, carrot-juice cavatelli, or a “Poor Man’s Lox”. Fox, it’s important to note, isn’t a vegetarian, nor does he believe he caters purely to vegetarians. 

Then there is Jean-Christian Jury’s Vegan: The Cookbook, steering clear of all animal by-products. The chef behind La Mano Verde, which opened in Berlin on World Vegan Day in 2007, proves in 800 recipes that you don’t need fowl or fish to create flavour – or even eggs or dairy. At home, you can rustle up an elegant blood-orange crème brûlée, or a rustic Caribbean jerk chilli, with just a few pantry staples.

The catch with home cooking in Hong Kong comes down to supply – a lack of comprehensive, price-competitive supermarkets means that a meal can rarely be cooked with a single trip to a single store, but home-delivery services by farms as well as pop-up farmers’ markets on weekends are alleviating the problem slightly – Poho Market was launched on a test-drive model last month, and it surely won’t be the last we’ll see of the concept after the runaway success of Island East Markets when it debuted a few years ago (the second-gen version of this project, Tong Chong Street Market, run by founder Janice Leung-Hayes, still continues in the winter months). The bounty changes from week to week depending on what’s flourishing in farms of late, but trendy ingredients beloved of kitchen chefs and easily used by home cooks that are often readily available include hibiscus (usually labelled roselle); luscious, leafy bak choy; and tiny tomatoes and versatile beets in all colours that burst with sweetness. Shunning meat sounds all too easy in the face of a bounty so great.