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HomefoodIn Quest Of: Hong Kong’s trending bars and restaurants

In Quest Of: Hong Kong’s trending bars and restaurants

HONG KONG – Walking through the streets of Hong Kong, during my first visit back in July after some eight years, I am struck by how little has changed. The city might still be recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic – it scrapped its mask mandate only on March 1 – but the bustling vibe of places like Causeway Bay and Central is striking for how familiar it is. 

Bar and restaurant mainstays such as Penicillin (instagram.com/penicillin_bar) and Ho Lee Fook (holeefook.com.hk), both in Central, continue to fare well. But there are also newer establishments which have already made a name for themselves in less than three months. These include Bar Leone (instagram.com/barleonehk), also in Central, which feels like it could be my favourite hang-out spot if I lived in Hong Kong, with its homely Italian decor and hospitality.

Hong Kong Island is not the only locale with exciting openings. Also making waves across the bay in the Kowloon Peninsula is Niras (niras.hk), the Hong Kong outpost of Bangkok-based Le Du. The modern Thai restaurant topped the 2023 ranking of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants and its Hong Kong cousin promises a similar experience to the original.

The Straits Times rounds up six other trendy Hong Kong bars and restaurants worth stopping by if you are in the city. Some opened during the pandemic, while others have been around longer, but all will deliver a tasty bite, a stiff drink or, better yet, both.  

Artifact

Info: artifactbar.com

Jardine House is, for all intents and purposes, a nondescript skyscraper in a city full of them; its lobby replete with neutral marble pillars and floors that do not particularly tell you anything about the offices housed in its 52 floors. 

But take the escalator down to the lower ground floor and you will find yourself transported to Basehall 02, an upscale food hall with trendy culinary offerings. One of these is Artifact, a counter dining experience offering fine modern Japanese cuisine. 

Walk past the counter and through an unassuming doorway, and you will find that Artifact is also a bar – one that feels out of place and time. With its curved white interior and circular bar, I feel like I could be on a spaceship in a Douglas Adams novel or on a Star Trek television series. 

The Artifact bar, which opened in early 2022, is helmed by American bartending legends Beckaly Franks and Ezra Star, who have opened other successful bars in Hong Kong individually and together. 

It is clear that the secret to the duo’s success is the premium they place on hospitality and service. The mysterious, timeless interior of Artifact could make it seem cold and uninviting, but the bar team is welcoming and puts me and my travel companions at ease. 

The real proof is in the drinks, and Bread + Butter (HK$170+ or S$29.50+) wins me over at the first sip. Made of rye bourbon and red port, it tastes like French toast in a glass with its underlying flavours of cinnamon and nutmeg.

The drink is, rightfully, Artifact’s signature concoction, and I could happily curl up in a booth and sip it all evening. But there are other solid cocktails on the menu, such as the Pina Colada-inspired The Champus (HK$170+), which is a pleasant blend of coconut, rum and fernet liqueur.

The Aubrey

Info: mandarinoriental.com/en/hong-kong/victoria-harbour/dine/the-aubrey

One might assume that The Aubrey, situated on the 25th floor of the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, would be worth a visit just for its grand view of the city’s iconic skyline.

But, in truth, the view feels like an afterthought within the glamorous and eclectic space, which combines influences from both Victorian-era England and classical Japanese art. 

So, as tempting as it is to settle into an armchair by a tall window with a view of the stunning Victoria Harbour, I sidle up to the bar, where beverage manager Devender Sehgal is holding court. He helped The Aubrey reach No. 17 on the 2023 list of Asia’s 50 Best Bars, just two years after its opening. 

Mr Sehgal’s six-drink signature cocktail menu for The Aubrey highlights two lesser-known Japanese spirits: shochu and awamori. He is so knowledgeable and passionate about the versatility and unique virtues of these two spirits that I find myself wanting to try the bar’s omakase cocktail experience (HK$1,580+). But the two-hour experience can seat only four people at a time, so I placate myself by sampling drinks off the signature cocktail menu.

The first, Harmony (HK$180+), features two key ingredients: sweet potato shochu and sauvignon blanc grape juice. The crystal-clear tipple is served with a shiso leaf, which we are encouraged to eat before imbibing. Feeling rebellious, I sip the drink first – it is mildly sweet, but after chewing down the leaf, I find it has an added vibrancy and full, herbal body. 

The Mori (HK$180+) is a revelation for my palate, with its use of smoky mezcal, one-year aged awamori and pear liqueur from Kumamoto in Japan’s Kyushu island. Awamori is fermented with black koji mould, which gives this drink a complex and nutty flavour, while the pear liqueur provides a creamy mouthfeel. 

Coa 

Info: instagram.com/COAhongkong

Mexican-inspired bar Coa knocked Singapore’s Jigger & Pony off the top spot of the Asia’s 50 Best Bars list in 2021, and has retained that No. 1 ranking every year since. 

Queues for Coa reportedly start at 4.30pm, though it opens only at 6pm. So it is a good thing I am able to sneak in before opening hours during a special session organised for visiting regional media. 

It is apt that Coa feels like a cosy little cave, given that you have to descend a flight of stairs before entering the premises. Also apropos is the smoky scent of incense that wafts over me – after all, the bar is dedicated to agave spirits such as tequila and mezcal, the latter of which is known for its smoky character. 

The interior is unassuming and without pretence, and these descriptors are also fitting for founder and proprietor Jay Khan.

He is eager to spread the word about agave spirits, which in his view are still misunderstood. “People still associate mezcal and tequila with shots,” he says.

Some 70 per cent of the agave spirits used in Coa come from distilleries that Mr Khan has personally visited. He has a particular focus on family-owned makers who avoid the use of additives.

The Bloody “Beef” Maria cocktail (HK$120+) is one of the more adventurous and experimental concoctions on Coa’s menu, with ingredients that include cooked beef stock, Sichuan pepper, Mexican chilli and tomato water. It looks humble, with its pale golden hue, but it is savoury and spicy on the tongue, and evokes the warm, homely feeling of tucking into a nourishing beef stew. 

The Pepper Smash (HK$120+) sounds similar, with its use of yellow bell pepper and jalapeno, along with basil, shiso, pineapple and blanco tequila. But I am pleasantly surprised to find it is more peppery than spicy. It is a refreshing and lightly sour tipple that works well as a starter drink or a palate cleanser after a meal.

Little Bao

Info: little-bao.com

Little Bao, which has two outlets in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay and Central, styles itself as an American diner with a Chinese twist. 

The eatery’s flagship offerings are its various bao (Chinese steamed buns with fillings) presented in the style of a burger, such as a pork belly bao (HK$98+) with slow-braised pork belly, sesame mayo and hoisin ketchup. 

One of my dining companions finds the thick steamed bun to be too overwhelming a vessel for the juicy, tender pork belly, but the bread lover in me enjoys it as a fun take on two classic dishes.  

Nevertheless, it is a hefty portion, and perhaps best enjoyed by a party of two or three. 

Reserve stomach space for other highlights of the menu, such as the Signature Fried Chicken (HK$178+) with Sichuan pepper seasoning. The spice has my lips tingling, but the chicken is delightfully juicy and tender.

Little Bao’s chef-owner May Chow explains that her secret is in using chicken from China, which she compares with wagyu beef. “It’s very flavourful as-is. You don’t need to do too much to it.”

The guavalada mocktail ($HK58+) helps me wash down the numbing spice of the chicken with its gently sweet, sour and salty mix of guava, passionfruit, grapefruit soda and plum powder.

I have a sweet tooth, so I gravitate towards desserts, but the group consensus is clear: The salted ice-cream bao (HK$48+) is a high point of the meal. Its delicious combination of fried bread, milky ice cream and salty-sweet sticky caramel hits the spot after all the rich savoury dishes that preceded it.

Vea

Info: vea.hk

At HK$1,880+ for the six-course tasting menu, Vea is not the place for a cheap meal and quick sustenance. 

But chef Vicky Cheng offers a uniquely Hong Kong culinary experience at the one-Michelin-starred fine-dining restaurant, preparing traditional Chinese ingredients such as sea cucumber and fish maw using French techniques. 

These ingredients are sourced from the dried seafood shops in Des Voeux Road West, which locals have dubbed “Dried Seafood Street”. 

Cheng serves the sea cucumber – which he says is full of collagen protein and low in cholesterol – as a crispy, cracker-like topping on a chewy tiger prawn mousse. He garnishes both with a fine mist of local 22-year-old Shaoxing wine, and the combined effect is an umami explosion on the tongue. 

Fish maw, which refers to the dried swim bladders of large fish such as sturgeon, can go for up to HK$51,200, and is Cheng’s favourite ingredient to work with.

At Vea, he and his team rehydrate it to a mochi-like texture that melts in the mouth, especially in combination with the caviar and quinoa sauce it is served in. 

The restaurant offers a few different beverage-pairing options, including a cocktail pairing (HK$780+) designed by one of Hong Kong’s most famous home-grown bartending talents, Antonio Lai.

A spirit-free cocktail pairing (HK$580+) is also available, but Lai tells us that even the regular cocktail pairing features drinks that are lower in alcohol and sugar content than standalone cocktails. 

My favourite cocktail of the meal is Oolong Tea served with fish maw, featuring smoked plum, osmanthus, hawthorn, soda and whisky. The tangy hawthorn – a nostalgic taste for me, as someone who grew up snacking on haw flakes – hits me first, while the smoked plum adds a pleasant, lingering finish; all of it anchored by the floral osmanthus. 

Roganic

Info: roganic.com.hk

Roganic Hong Kong is the eastern outpost of the original London restaurant opened by British chef Simon Rogan, although Roganic London did not survive the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Hong Kong outpost received its first Michelin star in 2020, less than a year after it opened. It specialises in a menu of deconstructed British cuisine that is as delicious and refined as anything you will find in a fine-dining establishment, without any of the stifling stuffiness. 

It also comes without a steep price tag. The three-course lunch menu costs HK$420+ and the full tasting lunch menu, HK$1,180+.

The truffle pudding, a take on savoury bread-and-butter pudding, is a rectangular croissant doused in an egg-and-cream mixture, liberally topped with lightly tangy-sweet grated Berkswell cheese.

Though it sounds refined, it is served as finger food, to be devoured without cutlery. 

One of the highlights of my meal at Roganic is not listed on the menu, arriving in the middle of the meal unheralded and without fanfare. It is the restaurant’s famous Irish soda bread, studded with oats and served with cultured brown butter. It is so pillowy, soft and moreish that I scarf it down like a muffin. 

Another fun dish is the dessert of flash-frozen creamy Tunworth cheese morsels with a candied buckwheat crumb and fig jam. Served in an ice-cold granite bowl, it is a toothsome treat to cool you down on a sleepy, sweltering Hong Kong afternoon. 

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