Our Ship’s Come In
Mobile-phone shops, hardware stores, estate agencies and the HQ for the Association of Hong Kong Printers; Ship Street in downtown Wan Chai is never going to be mistaken for the King’s Road or Avenue des Champs Elysées. This oh-so-narrow, one-way street, situated on reclaimed land in the formerly down-at-heel shipping district, however, has of late become the most discreet yet most bountiful thoroughfare in Hong Kong for dining.
Known in HK as the ‘demon chef’, Alvin Leung was one of the first chefs to realise the potential of Ship Street when he opened up his tasting-menu Bo Innovation restaurant nearly a decade ago. “I had some initial reservations,” he admits. “It wasn’t a dining destination… But I’m not surprised by the success. Wan Chai has become a place for dining as the rent in Central and Lan Kwai Fong continues to go up.”
Now with three Michelin stars, this minimalist dining space has a self-consciously avant-garde take on Cantonese cuisine, using some highly innovative cooking methods to create the likes of smoked quail egg with crispy taro crust and a dollop of caviar. The menu contains some incongruous bedfellows in terms of ingredients – who knew that chocolate could be used to coat ox tongue with such triumphant results?
“I’m just one of 20 places here,” says Alvin. “I think I made a mark with my Michelin stars, which brought some interest and media. But what’s important is that the restaurants who came after me have made it a foodie street.” Many of the restaurateurs and chefs on Ship Street put the rise in fame of the street down to an Urban Renewal Authority redevelopment project back in 2008, which tore down some buildings on the street and renovated some of the more historically significant ones.
“I actually didn’t know the street existed prior [to moving here],” says Margaret Xu Yuan, chef and owner of Yin Yang.
“I was thinking of doing a food identity project for Hong Kong,” she recalls. “When I first moved here it was quite a quiet street. Now it’s busier. It’s still not a destination as such.” Xu may be being too modest about the game changer her restaurant has turned out to be. With all-organic ingredients, many coming in direct from her farm in the New Territories, the restaurant consists of just three small tables in the ground-floor dining room of Xu’s terrace.
With no menu, a meal here consists instead of 11 courses of whatever Xu and her team feel like creating; which could be anything from wild prawns and sea urchin (foraged by Xu herself) pesto, crab meat on a bed of coconut and pineapple ice, summer forest salads with cold noodles and her famed ‘yellow earth chicken’; all eaten to an ambient audio backdrop of the sounds of the forest.
As is perhaps befitting for a street so strongly associated with maritime heritage, the flavours emanating from Ship Street aren’t just confined to local progeny. QMO (which stands for ‘Quriosity Meets Obsession’) is a 2016 opening which has a soft hint of the Med in its dishes. These include hake with mashed potato and spring onion and slices of beef cheek with Tempranillo and celery root purée, fresh Chinese peas and dehydrated carrot strips.
Just up the road, at his eponymous restaurant which seats only 30, two-Michelin-starred chef Benallal Akrame is wowing diners with his concept of fresh seafood with French techniques, manifesting in some simply outstanding, deceptively simple, knockout dishes such as clam in passionfruit and parsley butter sauce and parsley foam or oysters with salmon and olive oil roe.
The ‘demon chef’ himself, Alvin Leung has just opened a Korean street-food joint in the same venue and international uber-chef Jason Atherton has a rustic, blue-tiled tapas joint called Ham and Sherry. It is stocked with over 50 varieties of the latter and a convivial menu of Iberian treats including myriad Spanish hams and an unforgettable slow-cooked egg tossed with smoked bacon, breadcrumbs and grapes.
It’s Atherton’s flagship 22 Ships restaurant, however, that remains the most justly hyped establishment on the hip Ship. Specialising in small plates and with no reservations, the concept is absolutely on trend for HK and the dishes are, four years since opening, still some of the most enticing in HK. These range from lamb shoulder with sweet potato and cumin, Iberico pork burger with foie gras, jamón ‘toasties’ layered with Manchego cheese and black truffle to sesame oil-marinated hamachi wrapped in jasmine-tea jelly.
All this success has inevitable consequences. With a Pizza Express already on the street, plans afoot to redevelop the east of the area, and Hopewell Holdings wanting to erect a mega hotel in the north, the quirky ambience of HK’s new ultimate dining strip could be diluted by mega-brands. But for now this is one ship that is riding the crest of a culinary wave.
“There’s no other street like it in Hong Kong,” says HK-based journalist and novelist Victoria Cilley. “HK never stands still for long. So we could be talking about another street in five years’ time. For now though, it’s hard to think of anywhere which contains a more exciting cluster of restaurants in just one tiny street.”
‘HK never stands still for long. So we could be talking about another street in five years’ time. For now though, it’s hard to think of anywhere which contains a more exciting cluster of restaurants in just one tiny street’