In a cookie-cutter culinary scene, it's a butcher's shop in Aberdeen that's making waves among gastronomes. CHRISTINA KO peeks in
JON GLOVER IS not drinking. It's an unusual statement from the front man of The Butchers Club, who says the secret to his operation is having fun – fun that's driven by the copious and continuous consumption of alcohol. But this January, he's abstaining.
“So now, he goes home and beats the kids instead,” jokes Aarik Persaud, one of the specialist chefs.
“Yeah, but they like it,” deadpans Glover.
I don't believe it, not because I have faith in him, but because there's simply no way the man would have the time to physically abuse the kids on a regular basis. He's been very busy manning his multi-armed operation, which fuses, as he says, the best parts of all his 15 years in the food business in Hong Kong. From a converted warehouse space in Tin Wan, The Butchers Club operates a dry-ageing room and butchery by day, which converts into a private-dining venue in the evening, serving a $1,150-a-head sharing menu for up to 18 along with steaks that are pre-paid for at booking time and dry-aged to order. (If you're worried that's not enough time to get your meat matured, consider that the next available weekend booking, when we asked in early January, was in late April, with a only handful of weekday openings in late March). They do events and home catering by request, and due to overwhelming demand, have lately taken up an almost permanent dining residence at the Wine Vault. They're a frequent presence at local events, dishing out some 2,500 steak sandwiches at Clockenflap, hosting a “Steak Rebellion” pop-up at The Pawn last November and taking the champion title for dry-aged steaks at an Ultimate Steak Challenge judged by the likes of Richard Ekkebus and Harlan Goldstein. And somewhere in between all that, they found time to launch classes on sausage-making and sous-vide techniques (and plan to teach oyster shucking at some point, too). It's not exactly astonishing that on The Butchers Club website, Glover openly flaunts his aspirations to take the operations global, and cites his motto as “never miss a branding opportunity”.
Having your hand in so very many pies is hardly ever an endorsement, and though I came upon The Butchers Club by word of mouth – make that rabidly enthusiastic word of mouth – the sceptic in me wonders just how good a meal of meat and potatoes can be.
Steak lovers are a funny bunch. They don't just love the meat – they love to talk about loving the meat. Staunch steak zealots will wax lyrical about the cut, the farm, the ageing process, the cook, the rest, the seasoning, in a manner that borders on the pornographic.
I enjoy a good steak. But I won't devote a Bible to it, and I write about food for a living.
That's probably the chief misconception that surrounds The Butchers Club – that it's a venue for steak aficionados alone. Don't get me wrong, you have to like the stuff. But the foreplay and the finish line are surprisingly equal in importance, starting with fresh Coffin Bay oysters and Cloudy Bay surf clams on the half shell served on a bed of ice along with oyster Bloody Mary-wasabi shooters and sustainable tuna poke, a Hawaiian-inspired twist on ceviche with a sesame-soy-chilli dressing. And goshdarnit if those oysters don't beat out any other bivalve I've eaten in recent memory.
All of the seafood is spot-on, from giant mussels steamed in Chablis butter, extra virgin olive oil, purple garlic and fresh herbs to big and juicy spice-rubbed king prawns that shine with simplicity. Size might not be the chief yardstick by which the citizens of the sea are measured, but these babies are as big in flavour as they are in proportion.
Before the main affair, there's fresh-baked bread to dip in beef drippings, a nice little tie-in and prelude to the steak itself, but a dangerous game to play with your stomach quota.
Two nationalities of steak are on the menu, either an Australian beef from Stockyard; or a slightly more economical USDA Angus Prime, which satisfies customers partial to American muscle. “I find the Australian to be a little richer,” says Persaud. “The fat's got a little more flavour to it. The US beef is what you've come to expect from US Prime beef. I prefer the Australian, so I'm a little biased in that respect, but they both dry-age really well. They have a considerable fat content and good coverage.”
The cost of dry-aged beef is so drastically different from wet-aged, it begs the question: why do we care? Explains Persaud, “Wet aged beef is basically vacuum-sealed pieces of beef that age in the bag. Dry-aged beef is essentially beef that's not sealed in a bag but put into a climate-controlled environment where you have the perfect amount of humidity, the right temperature and the right amount of air circulation that prevents bad bacteria growing, allows good bacteria to grow on the outside of the beef, and allows it to age properly.
“So once that bacteria collects on the outside of the beef, and the water starts to evaporate, the flavour changes; it starts to get almost cheesy, nutty – and as you go along, those flavours and aromas progress.”
The Stockyard rib-eye is definitely the crowd favourite, and with good reason. The taste of the beef is concentrated well, it cuts like a dream, and seems to get better with each bite, from the brittle and smoky seared exterior to the plump and dark pink middle that beguiles the tongue and slides smoothly down the throat, until you're gulping down meat purely to make sure you get as much as your friend and neighbour.
Several restaurants boast of dry-aged beef, but none in Hong Kong taste so divine as that of The Butchers Club, an opinion that's shared by many a local carnivore. “There's a certain amount of work – movement, turning – that makes it quite labour-intensive,” explains Glover. Depending on airflow and moisture levels and the way the meat is placed on the rack, it needs to be moved to different parts of the fridge on a daily basis. “No one [else] can afford to do it here. We have an 800-square-foot fridge in there, and our electricity bill is high – higher than our rent, actually. Some companies are importing dry-aged beef, but you know what? It's been vacuum-packed. It's not the same. You need to age it at the source, where you're selling it.”
Steak lovers don't just love to talk about meat. They love to bitch about it. So while it's honestly debatable whether even a seasoned expert could, through a blind test, determine the difference between beef that's dry-aged on site or beef that's been aged elsewhere and then imported, authenticity is a necessary evil, if only for bragging rights. And this authenticity comes at a premium for which people are prepared to pay: after the cost of beef, the average private-dining tab comes to $2,000 a head, excluding wine, making The Butchers Club one of the most expensive private kitchens, if not the most, in town.
There's no bitching at my dinner table, until the end, when our party of 12 is informed that we have the equivalent of five steaks left of our pre-purchased meat. And so for once in the meal, when the dessert comes – there's a choice of key-lime pie or cheesecake, both prepared by raised-on-acattle-farm Canadian pastry chef Nick Ratzlaff – there's not the sudden sound of chewing, but instead that of polite and passive-aggressive posturing. “I'll take whatever anybody doesn't want…” or, “Why don't you go ahead and take the cheesecake?” (Right, and forfeit my right to the steaks…)
That's not to discount the sweets, which are done home-style and toe the line between fluffy and dense. My good manners eliminate me from the race for steak, but I'm compensated with a goodwill gift from Nick, a jar of kosher salt I had earlier deemed difficult to find at my nearby supermarkets.
Given the demand, it'll be some months before I can feasibly get my hands on another reservation, but Glover teases me with news of another venue opening in March, in another warehouse space – but this time in Wong Chuk Hang, opened as part of a sort of gentleman's cave and in conjunction with a retail concept. “We're the anchor tenant, so we're taking up almost half of the space. It's in Wong Chuk Hang, and it's going to be a deli all day: artisanal charcuturie, homemade bread, pastries, cakes. That's feeding the up-and-coming market down in Wong Chuk Hang. There'll be cooking classes in the afternoon. And then at night – we were just doing the math – we'll be able to seat three different parties of 15 in one go.
“The guy we're going in with, he used to head up the retail at Lane Crawford. So he's bringing in fashion brands – and collectible motorbikes they're storing on site. Antique furniture that's all for sale – Italian vintage stuff, really cool. It's going to be a massive space that's interactive. Sit at a table, eat off a vintage fork and a vintage plate. Nothing's going to match. In a warehouse building or on the roof of a warehouse building overlooking Jumbo restaurant.”
There's yet another restaurant idea brewing, but Glover won't divulge a word – he's been burned by quick-moving copycats in the past. Is he worried about this concept being replicated, then? Hardly. “Maybe they can dry-age beef, but [they can't replicate] the personalities involved, the people, what they do here. Our aim here is to have fun. The moment someone comes in and tries to make as much money as they can, it won't work.”