BEST BAR NONE
Hong Kong’s drinking dens may have perfected the art of the cocktail but they’ve lacked imagination when it comes to crafting bar snacks—until now. Charmaine Mok takes a bite at five watering holes where the food is as big a draw as the booze
Mitte is one of a select group of Hong Kong bars serving up increasingly innovative gourmet bites to accompany their drinks. We chart the trend on
inding the perfect bar can be more difficult than finding a great restaurant. When were you last excited by a cocktail bar’s options for lining your stomach? How often have you chosen from a smart-looking venue’s salubrious list of alcoholic elixirs only to be let down by its sad selection of dressed-up fast food or, worse, stale side dishes? Many owners give little thought to their non-liquid offerings, assuming patrons will be happy with anything to nibble on, or that they’re merely dropping by on the way to or from a proper meal.
But with the rise of serious mixology has come a delicious development: killer bar snacks. The new breed of operators realise two things. First, not only must they stock a long and impressive list of high-quality liquors and liqueurs, they must fashion them neatly and creatively to consistently exacting standards. Chefs may have some liberties when it comes to culinary subjectivity, but mess up a martini and you won’t be seeing the same guest twice. Second, the bar snacks should complement the cocktails and be good enough in their own right to keep patrons coming back.
In Soho, where there’s no shortage of raucous venues to prop your elbows, VCNCY (shorthand for vacancy) epitomises the trend. A hybrid, halfway between a restaurant and a bar, it serves big flavours on a tiny patch of real estate. You’ll spot its striking royal blue shipping container tucked just below the tiny Pak Kung Temple on the Peel Street staircase. The open facade offers inviting stools where patrons can perch for a vibrant Makgeolli Sour (a cocktail featuring the classic Korean fermented rice liquor) and a plate of roasted pork belly served with crisp lettuce leaves, kimchi garlic shoots and chilli sauce.
Founders Justine Lo and Joseph Baclay wanted to create a venue for showcasing quality cocktails and expertly executed Korean dishes with a New American twist. “We saw real growth for Korean food—it’s just so flavourful, it’s fun, goes with drinks,” explains Lo. So there’s a wagyu beef tartare
CHEFS MAY HAVE SOME LIBERTIES, BUT MESS UP A MARTINI AND YOU WON’T BE SEEING THE SAME GUEST TWICE
on the menu—tender chopped beef paired with a scintillating combination of refreshing Korean pear, toasty sesame oil and spicy gochujang that’s served with a bowl of crisp lotus root chips. It goes perfectly with the equally punchy Kimchi Bloody Mary, which has a house-infused garlic and celery soju in place of vodka. Unsurprisingly, Lo and Baclay are keeping mum about the exact ingredients.
Asian flavours also abound at another Soho newcomer, The Walrus. It’s the second opening by the Chow sisters—victoria, Juliette and Regina—whose first project, Central bar The Woods, blazed new trails in pairing innovative food and cocktails with its seasonal tasting menu. The Walrus features pre-mixed cocktails, served conveniently in bottled form, with suggested accompaniments. For example, the Tom Yum Me pairs perfectly with an unconventional snack of tiny Japanese crabs seasoned with a
homemade Old Bay spice blend and nori-miso chips. And the Rhubarbarella cocktail shines with the Oompa Loompa oyster (the bivalve is topped with a salmon and cucumber tartare, and a quenelle of blood orange sorbet).
Just minutes from The Walrus are two other new arrivals, both specialising in European flavours. Neo is a playful cocktail club on the Shin Hing steps with a tonguein-cheek attitude where patrons can play vintage ’80s pinball and foosball. The Eurocentric snack menu includes a Neo take on the croque-monsieur (the Mr Croque) and beautiful brochettes such as the Beef Provençal (skewered pieces of filet mignon, onions and peppers). The latter is paired with the Concorde No. 2 (a blend of vodka, verjus, Drambuie and truffle honey), whose garnish of fresh thyme is a clever bridge between the drink and the dish.
A short walk away is Mitte, an “osteria Berlinese” that accomplishes a lot in its limited floor space. Inspired by Berlin’s vibrant dine-drink-and-dance scene, it’s a triple threat: strong cocktails, classy Italian bites, and a killer arts and music programme. The industrial space is rough in its design, but the food is surprisingly elegant. Take, for example, the dish titled Buff, a pared down
cosmopolitan version of a classic Caprese salad, with sweet strawberries in place of tomatoes. Add one of Mitte’s Negroni cocktails and the combination is more than the sum of its parts.
The Continental in Pacific Place is another hot spot where the bar menu is strong. Best known for its brasserie cuisine and languorous Sunday brunches, the Terence Conran-designed space also features a much underrated bar where complex snacks are paired with classic cocktails. Our favourite is brioche buns with fried oysters. The restaurant is renowned for its supply of fresh bivalves, and this dish is always on point, each mouthful bursting with the umami qualities of the ocean. Paired with the Green Beast cocktail (Pernod Absinthe, lime and cucumber), it’s as close to nature as you can get in the city centre. Those familiar with consulting chef Rowley Leigh’s original London restaurant will also know to place an order for the parmesan custard with anchovy toast, a genuine classic bar snack that alone is worth the visit to The Continental.
At the newly opened VCNCY bar-restaurant in Soho, owners Justine Lo and Joseph Baclay update Korean dishes—such as wagyu beef tartare and pork belly wraps—with cocktails to match
At Neo, a playful cocktail club on the Shin Hing steps, patrons can try Mr Croque, a contemporary take on the croque-monsieur