Hubert Burda Media

SECRET INGREDIENTS

Its name recalls distant memories of a transient community far removed from home, but Mott 32 is steeped in local tradition.

SECRET INGREDIENTS

IN 1891, AT the New York City address 32 Mott Street, a man named Lok Lee opened an establishment called Quong Yuen Shing & Company. A general convenience store and somehow so much more, it serviced the new wave of Chinese immigrants, mostly men, who came to America to find their fortunes, hoping to one day bring their families to a land of promise. Groceries and other supplies were its main trade, but it also functioned as a bank and post office for the Chinese diaspora, acted as an informal gathering place for the homesick, and grew to be an anchor point in the growth of Chinatown around it.
Mott 32, the new Chinese restaurant by Maximal Concepts, has boldly and bravely staked claim to a vast space in the dungeon of Central’s Standard Chartered Building, carving in these depths what it hopes will be a similarly monumental community congress hall. The link between 32 Mott and Mott 32 is a tenuous but important one, signifying a reverence for the past just as the restaurant joins a movement into the future.
Malcolm Wood, Maximal Concepts’ managing director, decided to hire Dynasty restaurants’ esteemed Chef Fung Man-ip to lead Mott 32’s kitchen, due to his commitment to simple tradition: “It was just the best chicken that he could find, cooked in a traditional way and served in an honest way. It was the most simple tasting but one of the most spectacular chickens I’d ever tried. He gave us three dishes, which were a char siu, a chicken pot casserole and a crab claw with egg white. There was nothing fancy about it.” Fung turned down the job five times. On the sixth offer, he caved in. “He moved me,” the chef says succinctly.
And while Wood insists on principle that Mott 32 serves conventional Chinese, that is patently untrue – not that that’s a bad thing. Mott 32 is not fusion, or new Asian, or any of those narrowly defined terms from which restaurateurs or chefs cower. Mott 32 is your run-of-the-mill Chinese, kicked up a very noticeable notch. Take your average har gao, but instead of shrimp, pack it till bursting with South Australian lobster and Yunnan ham. Instead of a ruddy sweet and sour pork, try a stormier, sweeter, more intense twist that rides on the seduction of aged black vinegar, and replaces the harsher acid of pineapple with garnishes of speckled dragon fruit flesh. And a thick cut of black codfish bears no resemblance to any Chinese dish consumed in recent memory, but is a well executed variation on Nobu’s miso-glazed invention that’s now a mainstay of every modern Japanese establishment (Mott 32’s version is wrapped in a sticky sweet soy reduction and sits under a hurricane of crispy fried ginger strands).
Most of the dishes don’t suffer such drastic makeovers, but benefit instead from the restaurant group’s ingredients-driven approach, which starts with a commitment to buying from reputable sources and ends with a protracted tasting process involving a whole lot of expensive equipment. The restaurant’s char siu – on the menu listed as barbecue prime Iberico pork with yellow mountain honey – is a prime example: this one is made from Iberian pork loin pluma, a feather-shaped cut of meat derived from behind the pig’s neck, and the fattiest, most tender part of the animal. It’s prepared over 24 hours till the fat has been rendered, leaving behind a tablet of supple meat lacquered in honey and so juicy that it veritably salivates at the slightest pressure of chopsticks.
But the pièce de résistance has to be the apple-wood-roasted Peking duck, a heavily researched and developed dish that deserves its own little corner of the premises. Mott 32’s kitchen is visible from an observation window near the entrance of the venue, but the custom-built duck fridge and oven are right out on the restaurant floor.
“The fridge-freezer has to bring the temperature [of the duck] down below zero,” says Wood, “to allow the crystals to form in the skin, and then slowly back up above zero to set them in place. And then that’s what gets the crispiness of the skin. There’s a fan in there, so you can see that the ducks are constantly moving, that blows cold air on it to dry out the skin. The other thing is the oven. We’ve imported this oven from Dubai; a lot of the Chinese restaurants in Macau import their ovens from the same place. We’ve custom-built it with extractors to take out some of the wood-chip smoke and temperature. That was one of the longest, hardest processes to work out. And we ate a lot of duck in the process.” The duck is actually Chinese – after what amounted to an international poultry pageant, the team discovered that the thinner layer of fat from Chinese ducks yielded the crispiest skin after roasting.
The ingredients that have been listed, besides not being economical, are also very obviously international, which flies somewhat in the face of Mott 32’s (and sister restaurant Fish & Meat’s) claim to showcase “farm-to-table” cuisine. Wood calibrates this assertion, reclaiming it on his own terms.
“What we mean by that as a company is that we’re very ingredient focused. We always choose sustainable products when we can. We try to work with good suppliers and producers, and we’re always on a hunt for better farms and better ingredients. It’s a farm-to-table concept in that our fundamental principles are based around that. Now, we live in Hong Kong, on an island, and you can’t get all the ingredients locally. We do buy locally – organic tomatoes from local farmers. But you can’t buy cold-water lobster from Hong Kong. And we like to buy products from Australia, where they’ve got good regulations on the size of lobster, the number you’re allowed to catch per year. And that’s what it means, that the restaurant cares about what food it’s putting on the table.”
Maximal Concepts opened its first restaurant less than two years ago, and its various operations display distinctively different characters. This is very much thanks to smart concepts, but also because of on-point design. Imagine consuming Blue Butcher’s iconic Absinthe Blue Fairy fountain anywhere else but that Prohibition-erainspired loft. Or shoving tacos in your mouth at some clean, well-lit place instead of Brickhouse’s graffiti-ed, ghetto-warehouse hole-in-the-wall. Even its city spa Flawless is instantly recognisable to anyone of the Instagram generation from its hotpink door or the text-emblazoned white brick wall.
It wasn’t due to dumb luck that the Maximal team finally met Joyce Wang, whose firm Wang handled Ammo, a restaurant known even more for its decor than its Italian cuisine. At Mott 32, Wang has created a cave of wonders, an underworld of a million discoveries, stupefying in scale and splendour. Here, a vaulted room of untold secrets. Here, a plush, velvet-coated salon, walls lined with Chinese ink brushes of different sizes. Here, a quaint little teahouse of yore, with inked bamboo a paradox on purposefully unfinished walls, and a cacophony of lamps suspended from the ceiling. And that’s just three of the five private dining areas. The main floor is loosely divided into pockets of spaces subscribing to different themes and seating arrangements, and there’s a dedicated bar area, whose dark, industrial-chic energy gives it a whole alternate-universe allure that’s sure to be a hit with the dress-to-impress business set.
As with all of Wang’s projects, the rationale behind the interiors is highly cerebral: “The restaurant tells the story of the basement of an important bank building in Hong Kong, and how it has transitioned through the rich context of time – [it was once] a leftover storage facility for family heirlooms forgotten by wealthy Chinese immigrants, then a staff quarters for bank employees and guards,” she says.
“We imagined pieces of history left behind organically. The process of design was to unearth these clues layer by layer to expose an authentic narrative for the diners. The objects found in the space are clues to the larger political and social history of Hong Kong. Furniture and accessories chosen are as eclectic as the narrative we would like to convey.”
Indeed, the objects run from Chinese antique propaganda accessories to Danish caning furniture to British turn-of-the-century tableware to American midcentury chandeliers, all taking cues from both the city’s history and the Wang aesthetic, with her signature warm bronzes and sleek marble. The sheer number of objects littered about is dizzying – and harks back to the comforting explosion of products that were available at the Mott Street General Store, the name taken on by later generations of Lok Lee’s family until the spot’s closure in 2003. Wang’s aim – “to create a different dining experience for every visit” – further ties in with the multifunctional aspect of the legendary shop.
But though many aspects of Mott 32 refer back to one specific turning point in the Chinese immigrant chronicles, most of it comes down to more personal memories – those of Wood and of business partner Xuan Mu, whose family ran a chain of Chinese restaurants in London. “Our concepts are from our own experiences. Mott 32 is very much a part of Xuan and my growing up, spending a lot of time in Hong Kong and Taiwan. I spent the first eight years of my life with my mum, spending time with my Chinese grandmother. After school every day I’d go back, and we had nine uncles and aunts all eating at home together, all eating Chinese dishes. We have the exposure to the West, but we’ve done our time in Asia. Mott is that other side. We don’t want it to be fusion, we want to be respectful to the traditions – as my grandmother would expect.”
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