Depending on your perspective, dining at a fancy restaurant can be a real trick or treat. The waiters are attentive to a fault, the menu is filled with terms that beg translation, the chef is a bigger celebrity than whichever celebrities happen to be seated at the best booth in the house and the experience, from start to finish, can last longer than some childbirths.
The food comes as riddled with expectations as with foams and garnishes. And it can be sublime – a testament to kitchen creativity and prowess – but it can also be over-thought, overwrought and simply over the top. In times like this, where good food can come as easily from a food truck as from a five-star kitchen, are money and opportunity the only barriers to fine dining, or is the age of culinary decadence over?
The democratisation of dining has long been afoot, whether in Hong Kong or the rest of the world. When Jason Atherton partnered with Yenn Wong for his first foray into Hong Kong three years ago, he chose to launch with the ubercasual no-reservations joint 22 Ships. The dishes presented weren't a far cry from those served at his more formal outpost, Pollen Street Social in London – suckling pig with roasted apple, spices and piquillo pepper jus; or a dish of peas, broad beans, goat's curd, Iberico ham and mint dressing that could function equally as salad or side – but the environment was convivial, rambunctious, borderline uncomfortable, in the way that only the hippest restaurants can get away with.
“Both Jason and I wanted to deliver top-quality food, as we believe that the market is very sophisticated – but people are becoming more casual and don't want to dine in a stiff ambience. Guests prefer to relax, have fun and still enjoy good food,” explains Wong. “People are becoming more discerning with the food they eat, and understand authenticity of food more – but do not want the formality [of a fancy establishment].”
The team behind Bibo, Le Comptoir, felt the same way when it opened its street-art-decorated restaurant last year, putting the Robuchon- and Ducasse-trained Mutaro Balde in the kitchen to dream up concoctions named in Robuchon fashion, like Le Homard and Le Carpaccio, while patrons read from graffiti-festooned menus. Think ghetto fabulous, in dining terms. “It's a complete contrast,” said Restaurant Manager Arturo Sims when it opened. “The message is, it doesn't matter where you are, you can always have good food, good wine and good service. We are trying to defy what is conventional fine dining.”
Market-watchers heralded the concurrent rise of the comfort-food movement and the death of posh provisions as an aftershock of a flailing global economy. But is the whole idea of fine dining merely a preserve of the culinary snob, whether an expense-account-fuelled banker or – dare we say it – even a chef himself? Perhaps the world changed because diners didn't have the funds, or perhaps it did because the old way was, well, getting old.
Chefs, naturally, want to do the whole fine-dining song and dance. It wins awards. It's cool. It's prestigious. Dining-room dictators who are loathe to leave their domains behind are willing to travel thousands of miles to be anointed in person at the World's 50 Best Restaurants awards in London. Ask 10 writers if they'd rather leave behind a literary legacy like Faulkner did or sell millions of books like E.L. James and probably not one of them would cop to the latter – but luckily, in the food world, it's not strictly necessary to be either/or.
Even those who remain faithful to the dream of a formal restaurant understand the commercial necessity of a balancing act. The overheads at a high-end venue are typically high, margins are low and the slow pace of dining means an establishment can rarely do more than one turn of tables without compromising the entire experience. Couple that with Hong Kong landlords' propensity to raise rents in accordance with a restaurant's robustness of bookings and it's no wonder most of the fanciest restaurants sit inside hotels.
Degustation menus may provide ingredient efficiencies (what, you thought it was so you could get a taste of everything?) and other tricks of the trade can shave costs or turn tables faster, but nothing hides the fact that nobody goes into the high-end restaurant business to make big money.
The solution, naturally, is to go mass market. Umberto Bombana, whose 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana is arguably the hardest reservation to score in town, opened the canteen-style Ciak – In the Kitchen in 2013. It earned a Michelin star for 2015. Le Comptoir followed up on Bibo with beachside bar Hotshot, and recently high-end omakase restaurant Kishoku debuted Shoku, a more relaxed barbecue-based spot, in the same new mall, The Pulse. Even three-Michelin-starred Alvin Leung of Bo Innovation tried to ply the salad trade with short-lived takeaway shop Beautifood, and the lower end MIC Kitchen in Kowloon East. And one of the city's very few newer fine-food chef arrivals, Akrame Benallal, celebrated earning his first Michelin star in Hong Kong by breaking ground on Atelier Vivanda, a more casual, steak-driven café. It's not really selling out, or a compromise, even, he says, so much as offering a holistic experience for the Akrame fan. “I feel the same passion when I'm creating for Akrame or Atelier Vivanda,” says the chef. “In both cases, it's the same logic: giving pleasure. Both of those experiences complete each other.
“The financial aspect,” he demurs, ”is not what pushed me to develop Atelier Vivanda.”
Akrame aside, there's only really a very small handful of top-end restaurants that have dared to launch in recent years without the backing of a major hotel or property group, and almost none have done it in the classic mould, with grand dining rooms and tuxedoed waiters. Jeremy Evrard, who left Caprice to launch On Dining Kitchen & Lounge and manage Upper Modern Bistro with Pierre alum Philippe Orrico, has ditched the pressed suit for jeans while he's on the floor. Shane Osborn, who cut his teeth at London's Pièd a Terre and momentarily rescued St Betty from the doldrums, opened Arcane with a “chef's table” that's actually four bar stools right next to the entrance. NUR boasts the pedigree of former Noma chef Nurdin Topham, but its decor reads more industrial-chic cafe than den of opulence (though that, admittedly, could be a Nordic thing). The common thread is this: though you may see no economies in cuisine, the cost concerns are literally written on the walls, bare of the art or expensive furnishings that could sink a ship in today's restaurant climate, and besides. “It's casual, it's cool, it's what the diners want!” is the refrain.
When Bibo did it, they went all the way. But a bare dining room is not quite an antidote to the showy formality that many restaurateurs believe is ebbing in popularity. Is it really that diners don't care for the fancy-schmancy stuff, or is that simply a convenient projection of assumed truths?
Costs clearly aren't as big a concern for Richard Ekkebus, the perpetually lauded chef at Amber and culinary director at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong. “Michelin rates food and food only, it is not a guide that rates service or restaurant decoration,” he reminds, which sheds light on the issue. “Both [Michelin and the World's 50 Best] are probably open for debate and so it should be. Having said that, both systems are make or break for a business. We cannot ignore their economic impact.”
Does the man recently crowned Chef's Choice by his peers at the Asia's 50 Best think fine dining in its purest, most ludicrously flamboyant form is on its way out?
“We never wanted to be a stuffy French restaurant!” he says. “[But saying] that fine dining is passé is not in line with what we see daily [at Amber] as our waitlists are getting bigger and bigger.”
Ekkebus and a few of his peers might just be the exception that proves this new rule. For what restaurants have opened these last few years that have found that trifecta of financial, popular and critical success? The bottom line, in this day and age, is that the formula is so tricky and returns so shaky that few are willing to even risk failure without the backing of a major restaurant, hotel or property group to cushion the fall.
And even established chefs like Ekkebus who rule in ironclad restaurants have to keep things fresh. When Benu's Corey Lee stopped in Hong Kong as part of his Phaidon book tour, Ekkebus snagged him for a four-hands popup dinner that sold out in 10 minutes flat. Now who said fine dining was dead?
Of course, 29 hours before diners started arriving by chauffeur at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Lee could be found standing outside the kitchen at Yardbird, dressing skewers and other canapés before they went out to young hipsters in cut-off shorts and crop tops who'd paid $800 for the privilege, plus a free cookbook.