Inside Hong Kong’s Private Kitchens
By CHERYL LU-LIEN TAN
Published: May 20, 2011
ON little Star Street, a sliver of a lane in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai neighborhood, a group of hungry friends and I walked up and down the same block, iPhone maps in hand, a handful of times before pausing before a quiet apartment building. “Is this it?” I asked, triple-checking the address before pressing the buzzer.
After a quick elevator ride, we landed in a tiny, dank alcove before a nondescript apartment door. Before doubt had time to set in, the door swung open and a smiling woman in a powder-pink chef’s uniform cheerily ushered us in. Just inside lay an elegant and modern dining room lined on all sides with crates and racks of pricey wine bottles.
We had just arrived at Ta Pantry, one of Hong Kong’s many private kitchens that have taken a turn toward the upscale and inventive. These kitchens — speakeasy-like restaurants usually in residential buildings — first popped up years ago as a way for cooks to open a restaurant without dealing with high commercial rents. They have long been places to get relatively inexpensive, delicious and somewhat homespun Sichuan or Cantonese meals in off-the-beaten path settings. In recent years, however, these supper speakeasies have become hubs for inventive young chefs.
I was curious to see what the city’s new incarnations would bring. Armed with a list of fairly new private kitchens with intriguing menus, I set out hungry.
Planning to dine at Zone-D Ristorante is a little bit of an adventure in itself.
When you call for a reservation, Lew Low, a co-owner, gets right back to you, taking your e-mail address so he can send you menu options for the five-course dinner and asking you to choose your dishes so the staff can shop and his kitchen can prep. We took this attention to detail as a sign of a good meal to come.
The restaurant can be hard to find — it is in a building on one of the busy streets in Causeway Bay, near a warren of lanes filled with fashionable boutiques. Be prepared, too, for a little hike; the four-floor climb to the plain black door, flanked by a small Chinese altar, can be an invigorating predinner exercise.
Once the door shuts behind you, however, the candlelit, curtained dining room filled with tables draped with starched white cloths and the mellow sounds of songs like “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is transporting.
For appetizers, we were served tiger prawn salad and foie gras, and the size of the prawns impressed us even before we took a bite. They were served three to a plate, on a bed of greens tossed with sesame dressing. They tasted incredibly fresh. And the slab of foie gras, at more than four inches long, was almost as large as the slice of bread that came with it. It was perfectly seared, with a lovely layer of crust.
The lobster risotto, grilled lamb rack and pan-fried barramundi with fresh tomato salsa were delicious, though somewhat pedestrian. What did wow us was the mushroom cappuccino, a frothy, creamy soup that came with large cubes of buttered toast for dunking. This incredibly rich and umami-packed soup created a hush at our table in the few minutes it took for every drop to vanish.
By the time our crème brûlée and warm chocolate puddings arrived, we were stuffed. But this place does dessert well — the pudding, oozing with liquid chocolate, being the far better of the two — and we were determined to let not a morsel go to waste.
Zone-D Ristorante, Room 16, Fourth Floor, No. 16 Matheson Street, Causeway Bay; (852) 9802-5504; zone-d.com.hk. A five-course dinner is 350 Hong Kong dollars, or $46 at 7.61 Hong Kong dollars to the U.S. dollar. Some dishes, made with more expensive ingredients like lamb or beef, may cost a little extra.
At first glance, this restaurant, in the tourist- and expat-infested Lan Kwai Fong, can come across as a Chinese gastronomic Disneyland.
Its Qing Dynasty-inspired dining room, filled with traditional wooden Chinese furniture and an array of old teapots and cups, seems a little too precious, as do the waiters dressed in Mandarin-collared Chinese outfits to match the Forbidden City décor.
This restaurant’s modern Chinese fine dining menu is lovely, however.
Though we arrived for lunch not too long after breakfast at a dim sum restaurant, once our first dishes arrived, we were too intrigued to not eat. Golf-ball-size tomatoes arrived beautifully perched on Chinese soup spoons, speckled with white chunks of litchi sauce. Our waitress gestured for us to place the whole tomato in our mouths before biting, which proved to be sound advice: the tomato turned out to contain a little litchi within, and the juices from each squirted out right away. The combination of sweet and tangy was lovely.
Juxtaposing unlikely flavors is popular here: a crispy deep-fried “chicken stick” was stuffed with chunks of lightly sweet pears and served with a passion fruit and mango dipping sauce. This kitchen’s weak spots were its traditional dishes, surprising given its carefully composed theme. The Chinese soup with cucumber and Hokkaido clams and steamed egg white and soy bean milk in XO sauce were forgettable. But the unusual dishes that did delight were as memorable as the glasses of tea we received with tiny floating rosebuds.
Club Qing, 10/F, Cosmos Building, 8-11 Lan Kwai Fong, Central; (852) 2536-9773; clubqing.com/english.html.
Six-course lunches cost 250 Hong Kong dollars per person; eight-to-t10-course dinner menus range from 360 to 1,480 Hong Kong dollars.
The best way to describe the Yin Yang experience is simply this: Your meal will blow your mind.
The former advertising agency executive Margaret Xu Yuan started cooking as a hobby and turned it into her career. She opened a 30-seat private kitchen in 2008 in the bustling Wan Chai neighborhood, using ingredients from an organic farm in rural Hong Kong where she grows mustard greens, kumquats, bok choy and lemons. Ms. Xu’s quirky style and sensibility are reflected in her setting: a three-story, 1930s colonial-style town house filled with antique kitchen equipment and utensils.
From the moment you walk in, you feel as if you’re stepping into ancient Hong Kong — old Shanghainese ballads fill the air and lace curtains shrouding the windows keep the city’s neon lights at bay. Ms. Xu’s food is just as carefully orchestrated — in fact, she said she chose to open a private kitchen instead of a restaurant because she wanted to make her dishes by hand.
The meal began with a large plate bearing appetizers and house-made dipping sauces that took up almost the entire table. The wagyu beef and egg tart — a creative take on the staple of Hong Kong dim sums — came drizzled with truffle honey; a large chunk of sea urchin was embedded in a clear jelly made with broth from simmering chicken bones, combining salty and savory in a bite that has a delightfully creamy and crisp mouth-feel. Her roast chicken — juicy, yet with a beautifully crunchy skin — is a must, as are the house-made roast pork with sweet kumquat sauce and the “ironpot rice” studded with bits of earthy stingray liver. But the dish that you will be thinking of for months to come is Ms. Xu’s “Soup Without Water,” an intensely rich broth that she makes by dehydrating vegetables and collecting their juices.
If you have time for just one private kitchen meal in Hong Kong, Yin Yang should be it.
Yin Yang, 18 Ship Street, Wan Chai, (852) 2866-0868; www.yinyang.hk. Four- to five-course lunches range from 228 to 280 Hong Kong dollars; nine-course dinners start at 560.
Of all the private kitchens I visited, this is the one that felt most like someone’s home.
It has just one large dining table that seats a maximum of 10 — and model-turned-chef Esther Sham invites you into her kitchen when you walk in so you can discuss wine options as her sous chef chops and her effervescent Shih Tzu nips about your legs. Ms. Sham — or, as she calls herself, Chef Tata — is self-taught. She opened Ta Pantry with her brother, Andrew, a wine distributor, in 2008. She chose to start small, “in case people didn’t like my cooking, I thought at least my brother can sell his wine.” The kitchen appears to be doing well, however; it can take weeks to get a dinner reservation.
The look of Ta Pantry is modern, and the set menus, each bearing names and themes like “Le Japonais” or “Le Shanghainais,” combine Eastern and Western flavors. The “melting onion duck,” which is slow-cooked and smothered with soft onions, is a specialty, and is delicious. But it pales in inventiveness to Ms. Sham’s other courses. Wontons served in a clear, rich broth turn out to be filled with foie gras. What looks to be a traditional Chinese tea-smoked egg has a soft molten yolk, reminiscent of the soft eggs that have been appearing in expensive New York restaurants. Slender Shanghainese noodles are entwined with a creamy crab and egg white ragout and topped with black truffles and a perfectly seared scallop encrusted with sesame seeds.
Each course far surpassed the previous, and the meal ended on a high note that was a surprising take on a Chinese dessert. Ms. Sham’s glutinous “Po Po’s Red Bean Dumplings” — inspired by her grandmother’s red bean cake — come immersed in a light rice wine jelly spiked with osmanthus honey.
The dessert sums up Ta Pantry — and these latest incarnations of Hong Kong private kitchens. Expect the unexpected, and you won’t be disappointed.
Ta Pantry, Apartment 1C, Moonstar Court, 2D Star Street, Wan Chai; (852) 9403-6430; tapantry.wordpress.com. Lunch is 2,200 Hong Kong dollars per person; dinner is 4,400 dollars Monday through Thursday and 5,500 on Fridays and Saturdays.