Feb 23, 2011
At only 18 souls, TBLS, one of Hong Kong's most popular private kitchens is at full capacity. Small tables of two and four wait with bated breath for dishes to be served by the kitchen’s owner and chef, Vietnamese American Que Vinh Dang.
The walls of this tiny living room-like restaurant are whitewashed and decorated with black-and-white photos of New York and Fragrant Harbour (Hong Kong), while beyond, a spacious patio is ringed by towering apartment blocks and serenaded by the city’s night-time cacophony. There’s no valet, no maitre’d and no choices on the set menu, and to get in, would-be diners must book well in advance.
This is the modern face of Hong Kong’s private kitchen scene. With some of the world’s highest real-estate prices and a food culture that’s as eclectic as it is diverse, cash-strapped chefs have turned to cheap commercial buildings and tiny residential flats as venues in which to put their own gastronomic stamp on the city’s foodscape.
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“Private kitchens are a good way to go for chefs who want to cook the food they’ve always wanted to cook, but don’t have the budget they need to open up a proper restaurant,” says Dang, who is working on his third course – plum-sized, seared Japanese scallops – while acid jazz plays in the background. “Diners are always on the look-out for new and interesting places to go to eat, and private kitchens can offer that element of curiosity.”
TBLS serves a revolving six-course set menu. A door code given upon reservation will get you in.
Private kitchens are not a new phenomenon. High rents, especially on Hong Kong Island where most are located, have been driving chefs underground for decades. Some private kitchens are even created by chefs who work at the city’s leading conventional restaurants, but want to branch out with their own style, creating a raft of innovative and entertaining dining rooms where you’d least expect them.
“Restaurateurs needed a cool-factor to disguise the fact they couldn’t afford ground-floor spaces,” says Angie Wong, food editor for Time Out Hong Kong. “The difference in the cost of opening a private kitchen, as opposed to a licensed restaurant, is vast.”
Today most are legit, operating with either a restaurant or club licence, which allows them to serve “members only”.
While the first private kitchens specialised in regional Chinese cuisine, there are now myriad styles on offer: from spicy dan dan noodles and tongue-numbing mala hot pot at Wanchai’s Siejie Sichuan, through to dessert-only set menus matched with international dessert wines at Riquiqui. One of the city’s newest private dining experiences is Commune Lab. The commercial kitchen operates as a prep kitchen by day, but at night it is a private kitchen where guests can sample sustainable and organic modern American dishes up for consideration for the main menu of bustling eatery Posto Pubblico below.
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So what can you expect from these underground restaurants? First of all, limited availability, so if you have your heart set on the Cajun dishes of Magnolia or the contemporary French menu at Le Marron, try to book ahead – private kitchens are for spontaneous chefs, not spontaneous diners. Also, know thy kitchen – some private kitchens are larger than others, some are licensed, some BYO. Le Marron for example, which serves homely provincial French fare, is BYO and caters for between two and 30, with lace curtains separating recycled dining tables, while Ta Pantry, in Wanchai, caters to just one group of six (eight at a stretch) nightly.
“Before I opened Ta Pantry, I was frustrated with the dining scene in Hong Kong,” says owner and chef Esther Sham. “There are too many restaurants that are all about making good profit, and their food lacks originality and soul. Also, in order to have privacy, you have to pay a huge premium at fine-dining restaurants.”
It’s not only the menus of Hong Kong’s private kitchens that are a break from the mould; decors vary as much as any two city apartments. La Bouteille, hidden away in the rafters of a commercial building in Central, looks like a comfortable Parisian studio, and serves a six-course set menu. The nine-course, French-inspired offering at Le Blanc, also in Central, is served in surrounds reminiscent of the house of a hoarding grandmother, where every knick-knack has importance and its rightful place. But with the likes of fresh mussels served in white wine and slow-baked duck leg on the menu, very few diners have been known to complain.
TBLS Kitchen Studio
The cutting edge of the private kitchen scene, with monthly menus, exotic ingredients and plenty of playfulness. Que Vinh Dang’s cuisine – which includes amuse bouche of seared chicken topped with pickled daikon; and signature, handmade macaroons that change with each menu – jumps between culinary influences and styles so you never know exactly what’s in store. $HK480 ($62) a head.
7F, 31 Hollywood Road, Central.
One of the city’s first contemporary private kitchens, Le Blanc epitomises the eclectic nature of such culinary hideaways. With lavish, quirky, homely interiors designed by artist and owner Yves Chan (feather boas, fairy lights and pot plants) and a “tick the box” menu of French home-cooking favourites from the recipe collection of his wife, Gloria Lee, Le Blanc serves up affordable comfort food for people who like the sense of eating at someone’s home. Favourites include provincial-style roast duck, mussels and clams in white wine and butter, and classic desserts such as crme brle. From $HK250 ($32) per person.
6F, 83 Wanchai Road, Wanchai.
See also: 5 Tastes of Hong Kong
Chef Esther Sham spends her days cooking at the acclaimed Michelin-starred Amber, at the Landmark Mandarin, and nights hosting intimate dinner parties. Catering to between six and eight guests (in one booking), Ta Pantry has Shanghainese and Japanese menus to choose from. Highlights include the roast orange duck, carved at the table, and the “Not So Shanghainese” foie gras Shanghai wontons. By reservation only. $HK500 ($65) per person.
Flat C, 1/F, Moonstar Court, 2D Star Street, Wanchai.
Certainly one of Hong Kong’s largest private kitchens, but you still get a sense of intimacy at Le Marron thanks to antique tables, mismatched chairs and curtains between tables. Chef Billy Liang specialises in provincial French cuisine and the menu has a real “home cooking” feel, including pan-fried foie gras with wild berry compote; and smoked salmon tartar with black truffle potato salad. From $HK380 ($49) per person. BYO.
12/F, Ying Kong Mansion,2-6 Yee Wo Street, Causeway Bay.
Traditional French fare with city views from the outdoor terrace. La Bouteille, hidden in the rafters of a Queen’s Road commercial building, offers traditional French fare for the price of a bottle of wine down in Soho. As part of the six-course dinner set, the kitchen’s pice de rsistance is the tuna and avocado mousse, a natural aphrodisiac, making La Bouteille amour-enabled, if your date will climb the stairs. $HK380 ($49) a head.
10/F, Pinocine Building, 80-82 Queen’s Road, Central.
At Commune, a test lab for bustling Soho eatery Posto Pubblico, expect the likes of miso-glazed sablefish with ponzu daikon, wasabi fava puree and a sambal veal jus; or eggs and toast with truffled scrambled egg, crme frache, chives and Ossetra caviar. It’s all created by executive chef AJ Bellarosa and matched with world-class wines for the ultimate dining experience. From $HK1988 ($257) per person (minimum of eight).
1F, 28 Elgin Street, Central.
Source Qantas The Australian Way March 2011
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