If you have read my review of 22 Ships, you know one of my missions is to discover the dining gems here in HK (incidentally, 22 Ships is one of them). HK has an international reputation for offering amazing cuisine, and I look forward to speaking to this more adeptly based on evolving first-hand experience. Moving from NYC, credibly established as a culinary world capital, my expectations are quite high.
Dining out can quickly become an expensive undertaking. One way to explore (limited) options without breaking the bank is to take advantage of Restaurant Week. This is not novel – NYC and other cities host similar events. My experience with Restaurant Week in NYC was always a mixed one, though. Many of the better restaurants simply don’t participate, as they would probably lose too much money on the deal and/or they fear potential cheapening of their brand. For those who do participate, these types of events are clear opportunities to showcase at least some of a restaurant’s best work – food, service, and/or atmosphere, preferably all of the above. After all, shouldn’t a logical, key objective be to attract new customers and hopefully convert them into repeat guests? And to reinforce why your existing repeat customers keep coming back? Unfortunately, that was not often the perspective in New York, at least in my experience. I have a broad palate, so limited menus don’t really bother me, as long as the selections are well-edited. However, I found that restaurants often blew it – only offering their cheaper, easier, or less appealing dishes, and not even always executing them properly. Service was often aloof, which annoyed me the most. A customer should never have to feel apologetic about being at a restaurant or any business for that matter, whether there to pay full-price or not. If you don’t want customers paying less, don’t participate in Restaurant Week. Now this wasn’t always the case, but if happened frequently enough that Mark told me he never wanted to bother with it again. I couldn’t really disagree.
Six weeks into our move here, I have dined out an embarrassing number of times. Last week, I figured I’d ‘save’ a little $ (you know what I mean) and try out a few new spots during HK’s Restaurant Week – lunch at Madame Sixty Ate (a repeat visit) and Cuisine Cuisine at the Mira Hotel; and dinner at Chez Patrick, Laris (another repeat visit), and Harvey Nichols Fourth Floor. I will save more complete reviews for subsequent posts, but for now, I offer a few of my overall observations and tips for navigating this event.
Similar to NYC, Restaurant Week options on the higher-quality end of the spectrum are not extensive. But overall, Restaurant Week here seems to be a positive, less condescending, and more palatable (forgive the pun) experience. I hope this is mostly attributed to an understanding of what I mentioned above.
Perhaps part of this is also because there is a dedicated reservation website just for this event, which I list at the end of this post (in NYC, there is a website, but you still make reservations by either calling directly or using a separate, general reservation service called opentable.com). So restaurants here clearly know that at least one of you is there for the Restaurant Week menu. One doesn’t have to mutter under one’s breath that one is interested in the ‘special’ menu. That is immediately brought over or already on your table. That said, it tried our patience a bit at Cuisine Cuisine when our waiter was completely baffled that only I wanted to order off the Restaurant Week menu, while Mark wanted to order off the regular menu. This scenario required much more explanation than should be necessary, and let’s face it – restaurants make more money off the regular menu, so one would think they would readily understand this if requested.
To prevent people from abusing the reservation system, Dining City restricts the time limit for cancellations or changes (before 11 am same day for lunch, before 5 pm for dinner), which I think is reasonable. Note that if you do not abide by the rules and even if you call after these times but before your reservation time, you will be marked by Dining City as a no-show and apparently ‘blacklisted’ from making future Restaurant Week reservations. Now I don’t know how serious they are about this, but I did have to call for one last-minute cancellation due to illness, and I still received a warning email afterward. Since I plan to take advantage of Restaurant Week in the future, I didn’t want to take the chance – so you may want to follow my lead and respond to any warning email and briefly explain your situation. I was quickly removed from the ‘blacklist’. This was a bit of an inconvenience, but not burdensome.
I do appreciate that unlike in NYC, there is a tiered structure to Restaurant Week pricing here, with the higher-end restaurants offering their menus at a slightly higher price. This likely encourages at least a few higher-end restaurants to participate, period. It is also less constraining for restaurants and provides more leeway to feature better dishes, while still not pricing out too many guests. For now, lunch starts at 98 HKD and tops off at 248 HKD depending on the restaurant, while dinner prices range from 258-438 HKD, excluding beverages.
Menu options were expectedly limited across the restaurants I tried. One welcome change would be to have all restaurants offer at least 2 options for each course, which was only sometimes the case. However, I found most of the options on offer to be well selected, sometimes even featuring signature dishes – a very smart decision that other restaurants should replicate. Another great feature was that all restaurants featured their menus on the Restaurant Week website, so you could decide in advance if the (limited) options were to your liking and therefore worth a visit.
From a service perspective, I did find that most restaurants were overall quite welcoming and generally appreciated that many of their Restaurant Week guests were new diners. But service in HK restaurants is more basic than I am accustomed. That is a discussion for whole ‘nother post.
I will just touch on the subject of ‘objective’ reviews here and elaborate on this in a future post, as it’s something I think about all the time. Both from my own experience thus far, as well as in speaking with local and expats alike, there is really no one (or two) highly reliable, well informed source(s) for restaurant reviews here. There are definitely sources of reviews, but I and others have frequently been misled by them, to my great disappointment. I don’t mind user-generated reviews per se – I mean, I am one of them. However, with such a broad range of customers and palates, I always find it very difficult to trust summarized versions of them. And I also find it a bit tough to totally trust even ‘expert’ opinions in established media here. Let’s put it this way – when a very prominent, food-savvy local citizen recently said, “Yes, but the problem is, to ensure less biased reviews, people have to pay for their meals” – well, it spoke volumes.
I bring this up here, because Dining City just posted their ‘Restaurant Week Winners’, the 6 ‘best performing’ restaurants of the event. To be honest, I can only assume this was calculated by some formula involving most popular reservations and highest user reviews. While I agree that Harvey Nichols (‘Best Menu’) indeed offered a creative menu, the award of ‘Best Restaurant’ to the Press Room is a bit questionable, even though I know it’s a popular choice. We visited for brunch last weekend, and I found the food fine, but nothing special. The best part of our meal was the house special lemonade, which is admittedly charmingly offered gratis as you are seated.
All in all, I enjoyed the Restaurant Week experience – a relatively easy and guilt-free way to dine out and try a few new places. The selections, both from a restaurant and menu perspective, are understandably limited. But if you keep an open mind, I think you’ll find it generally pleasurable. Mark even said he’s open to giving it another go next round.
If you’re interested in trying out the ‘Restaurant Week Winners’, The Press Room, Sal Curioso, Socialito, Harvey Nichols Fourth Floor, Azure Restaurant Slash Bar, and Jimmy’s Kitchen (Central) are now offering extended reservations through 25 August at the site below. Don’t give up too quickly if you’re hell-bent on visiting one but that restaurant is listed as ‘fully booked’. I found that more than occasionally, that status changed from time to time. You just might be able to snag one with a little reservation-stalking.
The ‘best’ Restaurant Week wines (I suspect, actually part of a pre-arranged deal) can also be purchased by Restaurant Week diners with a 10% discount, by visiting this page:
Stay tuned for detailed reviews of Madame Sixty Ate, Cuisine Cuisine, Chez Patrick, Laris, and Harvey Nichols Fourth Floor (among others), and some lively (read: opinionated) posts on service and reviews.
Til then, bon appétit!