I hate the word ‘foodie’. It sounds both condescending and snobbish, trite and not just a little annoying. But for the sake of simplicity, I will not-so-subtly refer to myself as such, as everyone seems to understand what it denotes. Essentially, life is short – I just want to eat really, REALLY well.
In a prior decade of my life, I once considered a career change in the culinary direction. But after a year working nights in a kitchen for free (‘trailing’, as it is called in the business), I had an epiphany. That I enjoy eating a hell of a lot more than I enjoy cooking (although I do still enjoy preparing a nice meal for friends and family). And so I continue my culinary pursuits by eating out. A LOT. As a non-athlete in every sense of the word, I consider eating out my sport of choice. Now most of my friends and family come to me for recommendations, which I take as a compliment. And I take it seriously – both the eating and the recommending (when warranted).
Before we moved to HK, most folks kept saying the same thing to us. Ooh, you’re going to eat so well there! And I do have high hopes and expectations. HK is considered a culinary capital. But my most recent hometown, NYC, has set the bar very high. And to be honest, my dining experiences in HK thus far have been quite varied, even when relying on local reviews. More on that another time…for now, suffice it to say, one of my missions is to find the real gems here. So I begin.
A few blocks from our new flat in Wan Chai is a relatively diminutive tapas bar/restaurant called 22 Ships, helmed by British, Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton. Also known as my new obsession (22 Ships, not Jason – just to be clear). Part of this is admittedly tied to convenience. Even in NYC, I never lived this close to a really solid restaurant. However, this should not distract from the overall quality of the treasures on offer at 22 Ships. Cravings were born upon my first visit there back in May during our apartment-hunting trip – in particular, if I recall correctly, a truffled ‘toastie’ with jamón and manchego, topped by a quail egg. Divine.
A recent visit to 22 Ships transpired like an unfolding dream, peppered with surprise turns. Sound corny? Keep reading. I went by myself (more on that another time, as well) and intentionally sought out a seat at the convivial bar. Upon sitting, my immediately preceding mini-spa zoneout was jarred by an abrupt descent of my bar seat down to the level of a small child. Bam! Everyone was very concerned, but I was fine. We all got a good laugh out of it, and the staff promptly removed the offending stool.
I settled in with a few tapas and a lovely glass of Ata Rangi pinot noir. The standouts for me this time were the buttery smooth, slightly nutty (the fruits of acorn feeding), pleasantly salty 48-month bellota; an almost overly-indulgent baked bone marrow with bread crumbs, onion compote, and pungent Gentleman’s relish (anchovy paste); and a version of the ‘toastie’ I mentioned before, sans truffle. The duck empanada unfortunately didn’t have quite the depth of flavor I expected and was overly salted this time.
Noticing a similarly lone eater to my right (an entertaining Dane named Ulrich, in HK by way of London), I quickly struck up conversation with him, unsurprisingly focused on the topic of food and where to best find it. Executive Chef Matt Bishop is one of those irresistible individuals who can’t help but shower energy on everyone he meets, and he quickly joined our chat. This evening, he shepherded us through an extended meal of experimental tapas – a couple extras he just happened to create on the spot. One example – a squid ink-infused crispy ‘bun’ cradling pickled herring and tangy hot horseradish. A tiny bit heavy on the horseradish and perhaps not for everyone (and as he readily and quite proudly announced, not a ‘real tapa’), but quite tasty all the same. This was followed by mini-tastings of white truffle powder he had created from oil, then housemade sunchoke chips.
22 Ships aspires to become one of, if not the, place to go for high-quality sherry in HK. The owners purchased the remaining stock at the famed El Bulli restaurant in Spain (once considered the finest restaurant in the world, before it recently and sadly closed). So imagine my utter delight when Matt treated us to a spontaneous flight of four delicious varieties. My favorite leaned toward the sweeter end of sherry, thick and syrupy, like a denser version of port. As I had to run back to work, this became my dessert – with no complaints from me, other than it took all willpower to peel me away from my barstool.
The ambience at 22 Ships is perfect for a casual, everyday dinner. Boisterous, always packed, full of more-than-content diners kicking back for a couple hours. There are only a few actual tables, with the majority of seating strategically offered at the high-energy bar (my favorite). This may bother some diners, but I think this is how a tapas restaurant should feel. The restaurant’s designer smartly created seating that straddles the front window, with stools both inside and out – a move that virtually guarantees passersby stop and take a look to see what this place is all about.
Service is friendly, and you sense that people really enjoy working here, which is unfortunately not as common as it should be in the hospitality industry. That said, I have experienced a few missteps on occasion – on one visit, I was not offered a drink menu at the beginning of my meal, and I suspect another time that our waiter forgot to completely enter our order, as there was a pretty hefty delay in receiving some items. However, we also once experienced a waiter nearly jumping back in front of our table, announcing with glee that the padrón peppers we thought had sold out were in fact available for one last plate that evening (yes, ours). Not to be underestimated. Note that no service charge is added to your bill here, unlike the standard 10% that appears almost everywhere else in HK – so be a little generous if you’re feeling a good service vibe.
In a city now swimming with tapas restaurants of varying quality, a star like 22 Ships – with a no-reservations policy – presents a conundrum. I am obviously not the first, nor last, person to have discovered it. This means if you don’t have the advance planning skills to arrive at their front door by opening time at 6 pm or preferably earlier (or the ability to hold out til about 9), you’re facing a wait. A long one. One sufficiently long that Matt is entertaining the idea of opening a cocktail bar down the block to accommodate patient to-be-diners. Thoughtful and business-savvy. Fingers crossed.
22 Ships has made me an enthusiastic regular. The bellota and the ‘toastie’ are enough to keep me returning. What keeps me there? The croquetas, deceptively simple ‘Spanish breakfast’ with chorizo, potato, and perfectly cooked egg in a bowl, daily blackboard specials, and original desserts like strawberries with malted milk, sweet-tart sorbet (I believe key lime, or perhaps green apple), and corn flake crunch. A glass (or 3) of the endless sherry options or refreshing, slightly foamy red sangria help round it all out. Toss in a few fun exchanges with a dining neighbor or one of the chefs, and this is what the casual dining experience should be.
22 Ship St (like you couldn’t guess this!), Wan Chai, Hong Kong
4 HKF stars (out of 5)