Hong Kong: A taste for incognito

Hong Kong’s private kitchens – small, mostly unlicensed eateries set up in private residences – have been part of the city’s culinary landscape for decades. The hideaway eateries, which formed organically
as operators attempted to bypass strict liquor licensing laws, enabled anyone with a room and a basic kitchen to cook under-the-radar. It appealed to those with a palate for authentic home-style cooking and a taste for adventure. Hidden in unassuming residential towers, often in out-of-the-way places, private kitchens relied on word-of-mouth. Tracking them down was all part of the foodie fun.

Only a handful of these old-school places are still operating. Manchurian Candidate is one. This pared-back place, run by a husband and wife team with kids in situ, is in a 1950s residential building towering over Lan Kwai Fong in Central. Diners sit at cheap tables in what would otherwise be the living room as a procession of palate-punching authentic Sichuan dishes are rolled out of the little kitchen. It is reservations only and BYO, with a set price and menu, but the steaming plates generally keep coming until guests plead no more – a true Hong Kong immersion.

Somewhat paradoxically, the success of many of these private kitchens has traditionally relied on the lack of choice and creativity in the local dining scene. Hong Kong’s has forever been at the mercy of high rents and, in turn, a distinct lack of creative investment in anything outside of the norm. But things have changed. In the past five years, the city has enjoyed the same food and beverage revolution that has rocked the globe. Trends including ‘entrepreneurial’, ‘boutique’, ‘artisan’ and ‘hipster’ have amplified the scene, so too ‘mixology’ and ‘craft’ movements. Now, the city punches above its apron strings with incredible restaurants and world-class chefs serving dishes from all corners of the globe.

Despite the current heady bacchanalian atmosphere, the concept of a secret eatery hidden away from the high street hasn’t been lost on the crowd or the industry. Where private kitchens have lost their ground, a new era of restaurants has found behind-the-scenes homes in basements, behind camouflaged doors, even up fire escape stairwells. Many of them reflect the current hyper-invigorated food scene – money has been spent on styling and fit-out and top chefs are at the helm. They’re a far cry from the speakeasies of yesterday – but they’re no less an intriguing part of the city’s gastronomic landscape.

Finding these hidden restaurants is, again, part of the fun. Take Mrs Pound, in Sheung Wan, for example. This retro-fitted Malaysian-Chinese joint (specialising in fusion dishes such as rendang bao) is decked out in nostalgic Hong Kong ephemera including a wall of old make-up compacts, gym hoops dangling from the ceiling and mosaic tiled floors. But the real fun lies in the novelty factor. The speakeasy’s façade is disguised as an old stamp shop that blends seamlessly into the cobbled Sheung Wan streetscape. To enter, guests must press on one of the old stamps in the glass showcase. Importantly, guests must know to press it. The uninitiated would walk right past.

A similarly playful approach can be found at sister restaurant Foxglove, in the glamorous high-falutin’ end of Central. This ever-so-sophisticated restaurant and bar is hidden – humorously – behind an elegantly expensive brolly shop, apparently “established in 1868”. To enter, well-dressed peeps must pull on a particular parasol-cum-lever within the shop. The door then opens to a sumptuous venue that conjures jazz age cocktail bars, vintage trains and 1950s first class air travel. A French à la carte menu with classics such as beef tartare and coq au vin play to the theme, but cocktails like the Morning Kiss, which blends coffee bean-infused Amaretto with yuzu and homemade grapefruit cordial, have their feet firmly planted into today’s beverage repertoire.

Off nearby Wyndham Street, one of Hong Kong’s popular drinking strips, Stockton also has a wink-wink entry near impossible to find without insider know-how. Down a dark side alley, punters need to let their eyes adjust before clocking a single light bulb dangling at the top of fire escape stairs.
It’s well worth the weirdness. Inside, the dimly lit den is styled in the fashion of a London bar circa 1890. Call it posh Dickensian, with rug-covered concrete floors, vintage curios and leather couches adding more than a hint of old-world glamour. A glistening wall of whiskey bottles and glassware show off the barman’s cocktail credentials and the menu is Brit-contemporary with beer battered rock cod and minted peas, scotch egg with aioli and roast beef sandwiches with truffle mayonnaise.

Where places like Foxglove, Mrs Pound and Stockton have weaved their unlikely entries into the marketing stories of their venues, others – whether for practical or innovative purposes – have let Hong Kong’s characteristic suburban landscape speak for itself.

Brickhouse, a Mexican joint, is content with its exceptional naturally camouflaged entry through a workaday bag stall in busy Lan Kwai Fong. It’s an incongruous entry if there ever was one given the cranking tunes, art adorned walls and hip crowd chomping on mayo-laced sticks of corn or a barramundi taco inside.

Similarly, at Ping Pong 129, a Spanish restaurant and specialist ‘ginoteria’ in the hipster cool suburb of Sai Ying Pun, the front door is demarcated only by pink neon lighting up the old ‘ping pong’ sign on a big red front door – all that remains from the space’s former days as a ping pong hall. Once in, punters head downstairs to what has been turned into a cool industrial space with comfy lounge chairs and a rep for live music. The menu boasts share-plates of marinated anchovies with piquillo peppers, jamon croquettas and el Boquerón, a craft beer from Valencia.

While cuisine is often the focus, it’s not necessarily so. Fu Lu Shou, a rooftop bar and eatery atop a high-rise residential tower on Hollywood Road, serves classic Chinese dishes such as the slightly ironic sweet and sour pork, putting the emphasis on the locale. Guests are required to ring ahead for a weekly changing doorcode (or check Facebook) that opens the steel caged front door on street level. A rickety lift to the top floor reveals an open-air bar with kitsch Chinese ornamentation: a mah jong tiled counter and little Buddha statues sit alongside palm pots and wall murals. Up above, a glittering galaxy of city lights is pure Hong Kong.

If there’s a restaurant that does have food focus but has failed absolutely in its quest to go incognito, it’s Ronin, a tiny slim-line restaurant and sake bar with a minimalist Japanese aesthetic and night owl ambience. Hidden behind an anonymous sliding green door in a cute Sheung Wan side street, this 12-seater izakaya, serving delicacies such as Japanese Shigoku oysters and mackerel smoked sashimi, was one of the first to open on the quiet. But that all changed recently (February 2017) when it was named one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, debuting at number 45. If you have had to queue behind that anonymous door before, be assured the wait will be longer now. It seems even in the back streets of Hong Kong, some culinary secrets are hard to keep.

Photography by various establishments.

Getting there
• Qantas flies non-stop to Hong Kong daily from major cities: qantas.com.au
• Cathay Pacific Airways flies non-stop to Hong Kong daily from Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Brisbane, and four times a week from Adelaide: cathaypacific.com

Where to stay
Landmark Mandarin Oriental is a boutique luxury hotel centrally located and within walking distance to Foxglove and Brickhouse. The excellent concierge can help with reservations (and directions) to Ronin: mandarinoriental.com/landmark

Where to eat
• Mrs Pound: mrspound.com
• Fox Glove: foxglovehk.com
• Stockton: stockton.com.hk
• Ping Pong 129: pingpong129.com
• Brickhouse: brickhouse.com.hk
• Ronin: roninhk.com

Further information
• Selective Tours: selectivetours.com

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