Forget the big restaurant groups for whom global domination is the underlying mission statement. In the past few years, a growing number of local, neighbourhood restaurants – native to dining capitals like New York, London, and Paris – are now looking to Asia when opening their new outposts.
For the cynical, the flurry of recent openings is evidence of ramped up globalisation. For others, the openings are only helping to expand the borders on international culinary dialogue. Either way, it’s hard to ignore the impact this is having on the new Asian food scene.
Hong Kong has been at the epicentre of this trend – given its historic ties to the West, as well as its contemporary diversity (including a large expat community), the megalopolis is a natural choice for restaurateurs turning their sights to the east. Not to mention the fact that the pursuit of good food isn’t just a pastime for the city’s denizens – it’s almost an art form.
While several colossal restaurant groups have recently launched their first outposts in HK – including Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s Italian and Gordon Ramsay’s Bread Street Kitchen – it’s the smaller guys who are worth paying attention to.
Among the biggest Hong Kong debuts of late is the just-opened Carbone. One of several venues run by the Major Food Group (and brought overseas with the support of the local Black Sheep Restaurants group), the eatery has been a favourite of New Yorkers since opening in the West Village in early 2013, including New York Times critic Pete Wells, who anointed it with three stars.
The restaurant has shied away from the haute, global Italian currently favoured by the majority of the city’s Italian restaurants, and instead revives previously untrendy American Italian cooking. Modelled on a classic red sauce joint, Carbone serves up table-sized veal parmigiana, tender meatballs and nostalgia-inducing linguine vongole. It’s all the more surprising, then, that a restaurant whose food is a cheeky love letter to New York could flourish in a very different context.
Carbone isn’t the only New York export to set up shop in Hong Kong. Another is Motorino, an unfussy pizza joint with a refined touch, originally based in Williamsburg. Run by Belgian-born chef and pizzaiolo Mathieu Palombino, its two new locations in Hong Kong – in Soho and Wan Chai, and also the product of a partnership with Black Sheep Restaurants – wouldn’t look out of place in New York, outfitted as they are with proper ovens and old school fixtures. As for the menu, it’s a close cousin to the original, with staples like the Margherita and Soppressata pizzas in place. In a city previously dominated by Pizza Hut, Motorino is among the first to offer thin crust, charred, undeniably New York-style slices.
One more New York export to join the new Asian food scrum is Fatty Crab, a Malaysian-inspired eatery originally helmed by Chef Zak Pelaccio. Of the three, Fatty Crab Hong Kong’s menu has seen the most tweaks for local tastes and ingredients.
New York restaurateurs aren’t the only ones beating a steady path east, however. Hong Kong has also proved a popular with French chefs, not least of whom is Akrame Benallal. His first restaurant, the eponymous, two Michelin-starred Akrame, ranked among the hottest Paris openings in 2011, and still has plenty of cache; locals love it for its playful haute cuisine. In Hong Kong, the globally minded chef has won similar acclaim since his restaurant opened at the end of 2013.
Among the London chef set, you’ll find Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay hard at work in Hong Kong, but the celebrated Jason Atherton – behind some of London’s hottest restaurants of late, including City Social and Berners Tavern – is one more international voice making Hong Kong waves. His newly opened venue, Ham & Sherry, is a wine and sherry bar whose tapas plates blend Spanish and British influences – like the moreish goats curd and jamón croquetas.
While Hong Kong is proving to be one of the most accessible Asian cities in which to open an international outpost, it isn’t alone. Tokyo has welcomed several Western imports, including New York’s popular Doughnut Plant. French chefs are flocking to Shanghai (like Paul Pairet, who oversees the vaunted Mr & Mrs Bund as well as Ultraviolet, the city’s groundbreaking, multi-sensory restaurant that consists of a single table), while Motorino also runs a third Asian outpost in Manila.
Whether you’re inclined to celebrate or bemoan this culinary exchange, there’s no doubt that looking eastwards is having a big impact on new Asian food trends. It’s now increasingly obvious that Asia isn’t just an option for serious restaurateurs – it’s becoming an inevitability.
Feature image © Stéphanie Biteau
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