Alchemy – dinner in the dark

The concept of dining in the dark is not a new one, yet not everyone has the fortune of traveling to Paris or London and having the opportunity to try the Dans le Noir restaurants. They have however been the inspiration for French Creation Group‘s opening of Hong Kong’s very own dinner in the dark experience! Opened just last week, Alchemy is located where Taboo once stood on Arbuthnot Road, and is on two levels – the ground level features a modern and inviting bar area, and cozy lounge seating areas, complete with lush velvet chairs and shelves lined with books – a library of alchemist’s secrets! The entrance area is lined with mock medicine drawers to reinforce the theme.

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Alchemy - Entrance 2 - HDWhen you arrive, someone will explain the experience to you, and the dos and don’ts of dining in the dark. You can either opt for a 3 course dinner with bottled water only at HK$500, or add three wine pairings for an additional HK$200. You will have to leave your bag and belongings in a locker before you sit – for the moment there has been a small oversight with making the lockers only big enough to hold a clutch handbag, but that will be rectified. Each table will have one waiter to guide you and serve you through your meal. The are fully aware of the entire layout of the restaurant and can navigate it perfectly, memorise all of your names, giving clear instructions on who to pass the plate to, which direction the water and the wine is coming from, and personally escorting you to the bathroom if needed. And they are all visually impaired.

As far as the guides are concerned, this is a restaurant that gives back to the community – five percent of the restaurants profits go to the Hong Kong Society of the Blind. With no service charge, we tipped directly, and generously.

Once you have been given the low down on the dinner, you are lead through a series of blackout curtains to your table. To preserve the experience for all of you, I will not do what a food blogger is always itching to do, which is tell you every little detail about what we ate – I don’t want to ruin the surprise or give anything away – what made this meal interesting was the sensory response to every aspect of it. However I do have some photos for you …

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The Principal: Deserving of a 1 Star Rating

There are only certain occasions when I agree with the Hong Kong Michelin Guide‘s rating of a particular restaurant in Hong Kong – you know as well as I do that some of their 1 Star ratings are just preposterous. However I am so happy (and so is my belly) to say that The Principal is completely, entirely 100% deserving of it’s 1 Star rating!

Chef de Cuisine Jonay Armas hails from the Canary Islands and takes a fresh and thought-provoking approach to each of the contemporary European dishes. He applies molecular techniques to some, whilst others are more complex versions of traditional dishes, and each dish appeals to your five sensations of taste: sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, and umami.  There are three Tasting Menus available, and what is more notable is that one is of them is entirely vegetarian.

We went for the 7 course menu at HK$ 890 with optional wine pairing – some dishes are certainly more impressive than others; PB and I found that with each course that was served, we were more and more excited to be served the next. I would definitely say that this is the best of The Press Room Group‘s restaurants, and we are eagerly anticipating our Sunday Brunch reservation in January 2014 (it gets booked out weeks in advance). If you are looking for a date venue to impress, boys, this is the restaurant to reserve a table at.

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SNACKS: Passion Campari

The server will warn you not to take a bite of this, but to put the whole thing in your mouth. Once you take a bite, a cool, passion fruit Campari-laced liquid bursts out of its waxey container, much to your surprise!

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SNACKS: Mimetic peanut

This peanut buttery imitation of a peanut definitely amuses your bouche. I love how it is served on a bed of crushed peanut shells.

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Sesame Dentelle & Pâté Bonbon

These two were less impressive, but you can never go wrong with a pâté bonbon!

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UNI: Chawanmushi, sea urchin, sake, dates

On The Principal website, chef Armas says, “My aim is to respect the origins of each ingredient, to pay homage to the cooking methods that have come before while introducing my own interpretation.” Well he has certainly done this with the UNI dish – chawanmushi served in a cute sea urchin vessel and topped with uni and a date crumble (of sorts).

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EGG: Free-Range Onsen Egg, Iberico Ham, Parmentier, Chanterelles

I love, love, love onsen egg, and order it whenever I see it (here, here and here). This one did not disappoint, with potato cream and the most delicious fresh petit pois. When was the last time you ate a fresh green pea? I can’t even remember … before this dinner, of course.

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A very souped-up version of Egg and Soldiers

PB lifted up the glass bowl to get the very last bit in the bottom, and all of a sudden, we smelled SMOKE! We didn’t realise immediately where it was coming from and thought that perhaps something was burning in the kitchen, but we then noticed the wood-scented smoke trapped in the hollow space at the bottom of the glass bowl.

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BLUE LOBSTER: butternut, béarnaise, wild rice, tarragon

The wild rice was crispy like a popped rice, which imparted a smokey, burned popcorn flavour.

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COD: Black and white

The white sauce was a cod-juice cream, and I can’t recall what the black was.

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A view from the top

Bulgarian Bessa Valley Wine

Bulgarian Bessa Valley Wine

The wine list atlas at The Principal is impressive both in its size and in its range. We opted for the wine pairing for our meal (HK$400), and found it to be of excellent value and selection. We were served a new glass of wine with each course, and towards the end were making an effort to finish our glasses before the next course.

For our main course selection, we were served this Bulgarian wine, and I was intrigued enough to take a picture. I’ve never tried (let alone heard of!!) Bulgarian wine before, so I decided to do a little research. Apparently, Bulgaria is one of the world’s oldest wine growing regions, but a law voted during the Gorbachev period as a result of anti-alcohol measures called for uprooting the country’s vines. The Enira vineyard is located in the Bessa Valley region, and for those planning a trip to Bulgaria any time soon, a wine tasting there sounds like good fun!

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SUCKLING PIG: Baby endives, lemon purée, cabbage, pomegranate

Whenever I take a Tasting Menu, I always find that the main course lacks the flair and genius that the appetiser courses do. This suckling pig was nice, but not as amazing as what preceded it.

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Breakfast at Blue Bar

Buffet breakfasts are usually reserved for holidays – that sort of indulgence is just too tempting for a regular day. When I was younger, I could never seem to help myself when standing in front of a vast selection of food, where everything just looks so good, and you say to yourself, “well, I’ll just try a little bit of everything…”.

I’ve gotten a little better since then. I’ve learned to appreciate quality over quantity of course, but also always try to employ a method to control myself …

Wear a tight dress.

One can never eat too much when wearing a tight dress!

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As a birthday treat for a friend who loves breakfast, I took her to the Blue Bar at the Four Seasons Hotel today for their breakfast buffet. As I live in Hong Kong, I have not had the opportunity to try many breakfast buffets here, and thus cannot testify that it is better than any other. What I can say is that they have a limited but tasteful choice of hot and cold options, as well as a choice of freshly cooked eggs (scrambled, fried, boiled, poached, or an omelette), and coffee/tea is included.

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You can choose from a selection of Asian and Western foods –  a self-serve congee station, prawn dumplings, and fried udon noodles. Or blueberry pancakes with vanilla cream and jam, crispy bacon and pork sausages (the cooked ham had a very funny taste and texture – not my cup of tea).  Some cold cuts and smoked salmon with toast, baguette or English muffins. A selection of cereals, muesli and fruit. And the most glorious selection of pastries – I have never had such a carb-laden buffet breakfast!

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They were all so beautiful and I couldn’t help myself! The almond croissant was not as fluffy as I would have liked. It was not filled with frangipane as they sometimes are (and those are always my favorite), but it was covered in slivered almonds and dusted with icing sugar, making it a nice treat! I only had half of it to make room for the pear tart – the most beautiful pear tart I have tasted (which did have frangipane in it, yay!), moist, not too sweet, with a crumbly pastry. Also on offer was a Gugelhopf – a bundt shaped yeast cake traditionally containing raisins, almonds and cherry brandy, and usually enjoyed with coffee. One day, I’ll try to make it with this recipe.

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Saturday “Daytime Bites” at Blue Butcher

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The bar seats, and the picnic table-style seats at the front, are the only ones available for Saturday lunch, and there are no reservations

One fine Saturday, we were  deciding on a place to have a casual and quick lunch before heading over to The Space to check out Green Queen‘s very first Made In HK Local Artisans Pop Up Market.

As The Space is located on Hollywood Road, we decided to check out Blue Butcher; hoping to catch their brunch but then realising that it’s only on Sundays, we opted for their “Daytime Bites” instead. On Saturdays, only the al fresco ground level bar area of the restaurant is open, offering bar stools and a couple of picnic tables as seating, and it’s walk in only. We were lucky to have a table free, and the menu is  short, which whilst limiting (3 choices each of starters, mains and deserts), is quite refreshing in that you’re not overwhelmed with choice. We skipped starters and went straight to mains – quite simply: burger, pork sliders, chicken.

Seeing that I am on round 3 of the Bikini Fit programme, I attempted to at least look like I was trying to follow the nutrition plan, avoided the very tempting pork belly sliders (grrr), and went for the charred French chicken instead, and a Wagyu burger for my mister.

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Starting off with a refreshing Liberty Ale

The Liberty Ale was tasty and not too heavy, served in cute little mason jars.

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The Wagyu Beef Burger, presented nicely on a wooden chopping board with thin fries

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A close up – Wagyu Beef Burger, Tomato Jam, Balsamic Onions, smoked Gouda cheese, truffle aioli – yum! HK$200

The Blue Butcher burger is definitely one of the better ones that I have tasted in Hong Kong! Many burgers claiming to be Wagyu on the menu are unextraordinary, but this one actually has a thick, juicy patty with nice flavour. The additions of tomato jam and balsamic onions add tasty dimensions to the burger without being too overloaded, and the bun was very nice as well.

Free Range Charred French Half Chicken, Baby Carrots, Pearl Onions HK$180

Free Range Charred French Half Chicken, Baby Carrots, Pearl Onions HK$180

I really loved this dish! The French chicken has a flavour that can’t be beat, and (forgetting for a moment that charring is carcinogenic) the charring was just perfect and so tasty. Those baby carrots and pearl onions were the perfect accompaniment for this rustic dish, although the pan did move around a bit on the table. Soak up that jus with a nice piece of bread!

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Dinner at Wild Grass

Calling Wild Grass for a reservation is hands down the most amusing telephone reservation experience I have ever had. Stephane, the manager is so wonderfully French!  Imagine a super French accent, then add a slow, sexed up tone to it – you just have to hear it. “Hellooooooo, zis is Stephaaaane. Ooooooh yessss, when would you like to booook ze table?” Don’t take me the wrong way, I am not making fun, I am simply trying to relay to you how enjoyable it was to make that reservation. I was giggling inside while I did it. And I really looked forward to meeting him in person – he is the face of the front-of-house, and the guy to ask if you have any questions about the menu or the restaurant.

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Wild Grass does a good job letting you know what they’re all about …

Wild grass do a very good job of promoting their mission statement and restaurant concept, and I liked how they make it a point to make sure you know exactly what is so special about this restaurant, right there on the front of their menu – sustainable ingredients, OBE beef, bread made in-house, and they can host your parties too! I’m a little skeptical about just how much of their menu uses sustainable ingredients … it’s a term that is easily kicked around, a trendy term.  Also, for a nose-to-tail restaurant, there is not much nose or tail. But one thing I can say for sure – for a well-priced, casual Hong Kong restaurant, it has a truly interesting and enticing menu.

There’s not just smoked salmon, it’s smoked salmon topped with radishes and wild salmon eggs! Baked fennel with creamed onions and gratinated with goat cheese (they like goat cheese on this menu). Roasted bone marrow with anchovy and herb salad. Seafood stewed with saffron and fennel. Roasted wild Iceland halibut.  Banana and marmalade trifle! Lemon curd syllabub – what they heck is that, anyway??!!

I was inspired to order at least 80% of it, which made choosing very difficult.

Although we were there in the evening, I could imagine sunlight streaming through those glass paneled window, shining down on the farm chic rustic home-style decor, and attractively mismatched chairs. At night, the restaurant looks like it could be a great place for a long meal followed (or preceded) by drinks at the bar – but when we went on a Thursday, we were one of 4-5 tables, and in such a big space, we felt a bit lonely.

And now to the food! While we waited, we were served some of that house-made bread (soft and fluffy like a pillow!) with a goats cheese butter spread (dangerously moreish). I really loved how we were given a few radishes (which went great with the goats cheese) and pickled onions to snack on – they made the bread platter look beautiful too.

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A very nice French bread board, with goats cheese spread, radishes and pickled onions

The carpaccio of amberjack was a very generous portion, but it was surprisingly lacking in any flavour other than the strong flavour of the passion fruit.

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Amberjack Carpaccio marinated with passion fruit and green onions HK$138

Goats cheese oozing over crispy puff pastry and that beetroot jelly went down a treat!

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Baked goat’s cheese feuillete with bayonne ham, pearl onions, beetroot jelly, rocket and walnuts HK$ 118

My starter of poached egg, asparagus, clams and crispy toasted brioche was a marvelously constructed dish – bravo to the chef!

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Poached organic hen egg with creamed shelled clams, green asparagus and toasted brioche HK$130

The steak was order medium-rare but was served rare. I am always a bit scared to send under-cooked steak back to the kitchen, as it usually comes back over-cooked, but the kitchen did a good job of rectifying it. While it was a very tasty piece of beef, it was a too thinly cut to be enjoyed as a juicy steak.

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Grilled wild organic rib eye steak with Merlot sauce, avocado and beetroot salad HK$ 380 (or HK$40 supplement for the set dinner)

The pork chop was simply amazing – perfectly cooked, juicy, really flavourful and well seasoned. I really loved that chive pesto too – this is a dish I would order again and again.

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Savory breaded pork chop, cider cream, chives pesto, cucumbers, courgettes and snow peas HK$ 278

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Oyster craving? Check out Edo & Bibo

I write this after another wonderful date night with PB. I’m going to Sydney tonight and we really enjoyed the time to re-group and enjoy each others company before I head off for 5 days. So, I may approach the review of this restaurant in a slightly biased fashion, because above all, the company is what makes the experience truly enjoyable. We really did enjoy our meal at Edo & Bibo, if you’re on a date then the counter seats are perfect for a tête-à-tête, and larger groups are also very easily accommodated. It was certainly a good sign that on a Thursday night, there was not an empty table in sight.

The bread basket

The bread basket

We were the only ones on the counter, which was set up for groups of two. From here, you can see all the action, from the oyster shucking to the salad mixing and even the tartare making. PB had already ordered the wine by the time I’d arrived, and when I asked him what he thought of the selection, I got a shoulder shrug in response – he was not very inspired it seems. He did pick a nice Chablis however, which went well with the oysters. If you’d like to BYO, corkage is HK$150 a bottle.

The bread selection was nicely presented, but not very good quality at all – the baguette was toughly chewy (now that’s an oxymoron!). Oh well, we’re not there for the bread.

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A great deal for a quality selection of oysters

We were there, however, for the OYSTERS! If you are an oyster lover too, make sure you get to the restaurant before 9pm, or you might find the selection severely diminished. The oysters are delivered fresh daily, and E&B is one of four establishments in the same building (all opened by ET Troop) that serves these oysters. Certainly by the end of our meal, there was scant choice left on the ice.

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A wide choice of French oyster selections, not just your usual fine de claire.

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Some oysters I’d never heard of…

The Gillardeau oysters are produced by a small farm owned by the Gillardeau family, which produces only spéciales – a fleshier and thus more expensive oyster. Theirs is a very interesting story, which you might like to read about in this New York Times article.

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And a selection of international oysters..

That day, the oysters included in the buy one get one free oyster promotion were Pacific Rock, Irish Gigas, Fine de Claire, Osole, and Tsarskaya. Not being a huge fan of Pacific Rock oysters (those things are massive – I always feel like gagging when I eat them), we chose the other four plus two of the Gillardeau spéciales.

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The oysters on display in all their glory!

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Our oyster selection, clockwise from the bottom: Irish Gigas, Osole (Korea), Fine de Claire (France), Tsarskaya (France), Gillardeau (France)

We were in for a treat! I have read some mixed reviews of Edo & Bibo (Janice @ E*ting the World was certainly not impressed), but I for one was very pleasantly surprised by the variety, freshness and taste on offer here. The oysters were expertly shucked, and each one seemed to retain the flavour of the water from whence they came. I am a regular customer at Oyster Station in SoHo, and I must say that the oysters at E&B certainly are served with more care.

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Cocktail Sauce and Red Wine Vinegar

A scrumptious cocktail sauce is served, chunkier than most and although it is most likely made with canned tomatoes, it tastes fresh. The red wine vinegar is is dark and seems almost to have a condensed vinegary-ness – a little goes a long way.

We started with the Irish Gigas (HK$58 for two), which were less creamy than I remember them being, in a good way. Perhaps it was due to the fact that they were served quite cold so it made the creaminess more bearable.

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Korean Osole HK$ 59 for two

This is the first time I’ve heard about Korean oysters, let alone eaten one. The Osole were meatier, the water saltier, but for some reason, not our cup of tea at all. I can’t put my finger exactly on it, but the Osole  somehow lacked the refined taste of the other oysters.

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Fine de Claire HK$68 for two

Fine de Claires are always smaller, more crisp, and somehow more savory, and always yummy. They are fine in every definition of the word.

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French Tsarskaya

From Brittany, the Tsarskaya oyster is meant to be more creamy with woody accents, apparently. I say that because it’s the first time I’ve tried them. They are longer in shape, and these ones had a bit too much membrane for me. They were a bit on the skinny side too – the Kate Moss of our oyster selection.

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French Gillardeau HK$68 each

These babies were beautiful, and the all-around favourite. Big, but not to meaty and not too creamy, delicately flavoured with a beautiful briny taste – just perfect really. Too bad they weren’t part of the two for one offer because I could have had a whole plate of them.

Just as quickly as it had started, our oyster round was over (boo). We moved on to our second round of starters, the first we chose from their “Chef Specials”: Edo & Bibo Signature Caesar Salad with Apple Wood Smoked Bacon and Fresh Graded Parmeson (sic)”. As far as Caesar Salads go, it was definitely one of the better ones – crisp Romaine lettuce, a nice tangy creamy dressing. Using the dressing as a plate garnish was somehow lost on us, and there was not enough of that (very nice) bacon. It also rained Parmesan onto our plates when we picked up each leaf – but I love that stuff.

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Signature Caesar Salad HK$108

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Carnevino

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If there was ever a time to be impressed with a steak restaurant, then this would be it, my meat-eating friends. The 2nd Hong Kong restaurant-child of Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, in conjunction with the ever-expanding Dining Concepts Group (who seem to be aiming for a monopoly on steak in Hong Kong), attention to detail is definitely the motto for this restaurant.

Photo courtesy of sassyhongkong.com

The Interior – photo from sassyhongkong.com

Crisp white linens, leather paneled chairs, beautiful wooden flooring, brass lighting. Everything is quite masculine, yet the decor is welcoming and appealing to all. What impressed me – the Christofle cutlery and engraved Laguiole knives! It really seems as if no expense was spared, and not only was the food rich, but so was the eating experience.

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amuse bouche – butternut squash purée with home-made marshmallows

Before out starters arrived, we were served an amuse bouche of butternut squash soup. It was comforting albeit slightly unsophisticated, and a touch on the sweet side. I wouldn’t turn my nose up at it, but one of those in our party didn’t finish it. It wasn’t a good indicator of the meal to come, certainly.

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Scallop Agrumato: Live Scallops with house-made Mandarin Oil HK$178

We started with live scallops with a wonderful citrusy oil, a sophisticated dish that was beautifully presented. I could always do with more scallop though!

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Calamari with Spicy Tomato HK$168

Our waiter that evening was extremely knowledgeable about the menu, and although there was a big discrepancy between some of the staff, many of them looked as if they had been very well trained on the menu, the ingredients and service to a higher level in general. Hats off to Batali/Bastianich for making service a priority, it’s hard to come by in Hong Kong.

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Lunch @ MO Bar

If you are looking for a smart and upscale place for lunch in Central without the (unreasonably) smart price tag, then MO Bar at the Landmark Mandarin Hotel is the place to go. I took my mother there for a pre-birthday lunch today, as she has been singing praises about their Hainan Chicken Rice for  ages (“the best in town!!!”, she says), and it’s only the best for my mother.

Tomato bread, and our usual hot water with lemon

I called in the morning and they were fully booked but they kindly said they would squeeze us in, and when we arrived we were shown to a very nice table. Our main waiter, in true Mandarin form, was gracious and informative. He was there when we needed him, and yet seemed to vanish when we didn’t. He expertly guided me through the menu, and demonstrated some remarkable NLP skills – so that even though I only planned to go for a starter and a main, I somehow managed to fold for a dessert and a glass of wine too.

They serve a nice sun-dried tomato bread, which was nice, soft and fresh, but nothing fabulous.

The venue is chic yet casual at the same time, and while the set lunch menu is more expensive than your average lunch in Central, it’s still not going to break the bank at $228 for 2 courses (including tea or coffee) – that extra bit is really worth it for the ambience and quality of ingredients they use.

Sweet corn, rocket and chorizo salad, and beef short rib cannelloni

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Grassroots Pantry

If there was any restaurant that would encourage me to become vegetarian, it’s this one. Tucked away at the end of a small lane, among the maze of one way streets in Sai Ying Pun, is this unassuming gem that is Grassroots Pantry. Inside and out, it is decorated to look like a beautiful summertime garden – plants and pretty flowers are thoughtfully placed around the interior and on the tables, birds adorn the wallpaper, and everything is pretty, fresh, light and bright.

It’s run by Chef Peggy Chan, who is encouraging the slow food movement by offering healthy dishes jam-packed full of good things and made with seasonal and (whenever possible) local organic produce. For anyone who thought that to be vegetarian is to be limited and bored with food (like me), then you should come here and stand corrected.

The cutest handmade menus

Everything about this boutique cafe concept is as ‘green’ and socially responsible as can possibly be, from the individual (The menu changes according to seasonal produce so that everything that goes in your stomach is as fresh as possible) to the community (they hold workshops and cooking classes to educate the people), and even beyond (they are in partnership with Table for Two , and charity that provides meals to children in need).

And now to the food… Continue reading