Outside the office block in which we sit is a busy Hong Kong street yet it feels 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 Chateau Petit Sicard St Emilion as our host at the French restaurant Le Marron looks around the room. “Did you know we’re dining in what used to be a company director’s office?” he asks. Welcome to the underground world of private dining in Hong Kong. Private dining rooms are known as members’ dining rooms, speakeasies, or private kitchens.
These three names mean the same thing when it comes to illicit dining Hong Kong style. Speakeasies operate under a club license rather than a restaurant one to avoid certain licensing requirements. Legislation which states a restaurant kitchen must take up over one third of the available floor space makes it almost impossible for small establishments or those just starting out to turn over enough tables to make a living. A club license is a neat, albeit illegal, way around this particular problem although the threat of official inspection keeps owners on their toes.
In a bid to allude authorities and save on rent, private kitchens are located in apartment buildings, office blocks or nondescript residential areas. This adds an illicit thrill to a night out but can make the restaurants challenging to find. Getting to the French restaurant Le Marron involves buzzing our way into an office block, a ride in a rattling elevator and ringing an ancient doorbell. When a non-descript 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 clustered on top of an ornate armoire create the impression I am in a private home rather than here as a paying guest.
French restaurants in Hong Kong are formal and expensive so the reasonably priced Le Marron fills a definite gap in the marketplace. With tempting dishes such as French mussels in white wine sauce, Confit de Canard and Grand Marnier soufflé it 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 known as Lan Kwai Fong, is an outstanding example. Not bad considering the owner and chef is an ex IT professional with no formal cooking qualifications.
SARS made for tough economic times but what caused the demise of Andy Lam’s IT business was ultimately also his salvation as it encouraged him to follow his passion for cooking. Andy loved food so in 2003 he decided to open Club Qing and serve traditional Cantonese cuisine in relaxed surroundings. Decorated in the ornate style of the Qing Dynasty, hence the name, this private kitchen is cosy rather than ostentatious and instantly welcoming. News spread quickly amongst local diners and Club Qing was soon inundated with customers.
Andy believes a good dining experience revolves around three things: decoration, tea and food. His dining philosophy may seem deceptively simple but the beauty lies in its execution. As we enjoy rose flavoured Bird’s Nest rolls that have been steamed with the delicate dried buds used to make tea, Andy 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 what we have just eaten.
The next drink is equally memorable and provided by Club Qing’s in-house tea master who works at a small table in the corner. She does not make the Iron Kwan-Yin Oolong tea in a pot: rather we are served individually with each cup brewed especially for us. As is often the case with private kitchens, this whole dining experience has a distinctly personal touch. Club Qing offers a set menu that changes every three months in line with the seasons except for dessert which is different every day. I am definitely full yet cannot resist the bowl of tropical fruit segments drizzled with what looks like minted cream. The dessert is deceptively simple but, just like Andy’s approach to dining, the combination is sublime.
Disclosure: The writer dined at Le Marron and Club Qing as a guest of the respective restaurants.