Se­cret tastes of hid­den HK

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - Tiana Tem­ple­man

Othrill to a night out but can make the restau­rants chal­leng­ing to find.

Get­ting to Le Mar­ron (12/F, Ying Kong Man­sion, 2-6 Yee Wo St, Cause­way Bay) in­volves buzzing my way into an of­fice block, a ride in a rat­tling el­e­va­tor and a ring on an an­cient door­bell. When a plain door opens to re­veal a lit­tle slice of France, com­plete with an­tiques and fine lace cur­tains, I can’t help but feel like Alice in Won­der­land. The gilded photo frames on top of an or­nate ar­moire cre­ate the im­pres­sion I am a guest in a private home.

Con­ven­tional French restau­rants in Hong Kong are for­mal and of­ten ex­pen­sive, so the rea­son­ably priced Le Mar­ron fills a gap in the mar­ket. With tempt­ing dishes such as French mus­sels in white wine sauce, con­fit de ca­nard and grand marnier souf­fle, this place fre­quently books out well in ad­vance.

How­ever, speakeasies can fea­ture any cui­sine. Not sur­pris­ingly, Can­tonese is the most pop­u­lar, and Club Qing, lo­cated in the hip area on Hong Kong Is­land known as Lan Kwai Fong, is an out­stand­ing ex­am­ple.

The SARS cri­sis made for tough eco­nomic times but what caused the demise of owner and chef Andy Lam’s IT busi­ness was also his sal­va­tion. Lam loved food so, in 2003, he opened Club Qing to serve tra­di­tional Can­tonese cui­sine in a re­laxed set­ting.

Dec­o­rated in the or­nate style of the Qing dy­nasty, this private kitchen is cosy rather than os­ten­ta­tious, and in­stantly wel­com­ing. News of its open­ing spread quickly and Club Qing was soon in­un­dated. Those plan­ning to dine here would be wise to book early.

Lam be­lieves a good din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence re­volves around dec­o­ra­tion, tea and food. The beauty lies in its ex­e­cu­tion. As we en­joy rose-flavoured bird’s nest rolls, steamed with the del­i­cate dried buds used to make tea, Lam hands us each a shot glass. ‘‘ Sum­mer ginger drink,’’ he ex­plains. ‘‘ Drink af­ter the roll.’’

The flavour is an ex­quis­ite blend of sweet and savoury that per­fectly com­ple­ments the food.

Our next drink is equally mem­o­rable and pro­vided by Club Qing’s in-house tea mas­ter. She does not make the Iron Kwan-Yin Oo­long tea in a pot; rather, we are served in­di­vid­u­ally, with each cup spe­cially brewed. As is of­ten the case with private kitchens, the din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence has a dis­tinctly per­sonal touch.

Club Qing’s set menu changes with the sea­sons, ex­cept for dessert, which is dif­fer­ent ev­ery day. www.mar­ UT­SIDE the of­fice block in which we sit is a busy Hong Kong street, yet it feels as if I am in pro­vin­cial France. Faded oil paint­ings al­lude to a shabby gen­til­ity that only money can buy, and a ta­ble set with or­nate sil­ver­ware holds the prom­ise of culi­nary de­lights to come. It is sur­real and about to be­come even more so. We raise glasses of bordeaux as our host looks around the room. ‘‘ Did you know we’re din­ing in what used to be a com­pany di­rec­tor’s of­fice?’’ he asks.

Wel­come to Hong Kong and the un­der­ground world of private din­ing. Mem­bers’ din­ing rooms, speakeasies, private kitchens: they mean the same when it comes to il­licit din­ing, Hong Kong style.

Speakeasies op­er­ate un­der a club li­cence rather than a restau­rant li­cence, to avoid cer­tain le­gal re­quire­ments. Leg­is­la­tion that states a restau­rant kitchen must oc­cupy more than one-third of the avail­able floor space makes it al­most im­pos­si­ble for some to turn over enough ta­bles to make a liv­ing.

A club li­cence is a neat, al­beit de­vi­ous, way around this prob­lem, al­though the threat of of­fi­cial in­spec­tion keeps own­ers on their toes. In a bid to elude au­thor­i­ties and save on rent, private kitchens are lo­cated in apart­ment build­ings, of­fice blocks or non­de­script res­i­den­tial ar­eas. This adds a cer­tain

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