By Hans Ebert
Less is more. Or less was more. And maybe this is where Hong Kong has gone wrong. It’s become Mr Creosote.
Gluttony has taken hold of the city. Perhaps not gluttony so much, but because of not knowing what people want, throwing everything against the kitchen sink and see what sticks. Usually, nothing. It’s just another buffet of odds and sods. Fusion cuisine where confusion reigns as no one is really sure of anything. It’s Dabblers Anonymous.
When first arriving in Hong Kong from what was then Ceylon, there suddenly appeared the…lunch box. It was a brilliant concept. Lunch in a box. For a nine year old, the highlight was a Saturday. Mum would have a half day from work and would bring home a lunch box- either chicken curry and rice or baked pork chop and rice from what was probably the first fast food outlet in Hong Kong: Ong Lok Yuen.
It cost less than HK$2, but the cost never mattered. It was about opening that lunch box and tasting a Chinese chicken curry that was more potatoes than curry in what was a very different tasting sauce or a baked pork chop with fried rice.
On Sundays, it was travelling more upmarket: walking over to the Hong Kong Hilton’s international buffet at the Jade Ballroom with my parents after church at St John’s Cathedral. It was the only reason I ever went to church.
This was the mutha of all buffets where there was something for everyone. Where there were mad stampedes to the lobster, Japanese and prawn sections. Where rather rotund kids would create pagodas on their plates comprising noodles, curries, sushi, sashimi and various desserts. “All you can eat” took on a different meaning. We entered a different dimension.
As many of us started rolling in the years and began dating and even marrying, Hong Kong still operated under a Less Is More policy. When dating, it really came down to two restaurants: Pink Castle and La Taverna, the latter opened in 1969 by two Italian brothers for their friends in Hong Kong. Here was the place that had her at Buenos Sera, bella bambino.
When married, at least for my then wife and myself, it was Czarina in Bonham Road and known for its favourites- the borscht. And as always for me, a Chinese Beef or Chicken curry. For someone who was weaned on Sri Lankan curries, this mild curry in a rather bland looking gravy which was called a “sauce” opened up tastebuds I never knew existed.
As Hong Kong opened up and there was the Lan Kwai Fong area, the first discotheques and a few years later restaurants for the start of the Long Lunch like Wyndham Street Thai with its fabulous stuffed Roasted Game Hen, the humus and chicken liver at Beirut and the paella at La Bodega.
These new kids on the block survived alongside old favourites Jimmy’s Kitchen- the Madras Chicken Curry, below, is still a dish to die for- Fernando’s Hideaway which sadly closed its doors years ago, Cinta J which still soldiers on with the best Beef Rendang in town, we’re now looking at over-supply and demand.
It was a subject discussed by some friends who have invested in restaurants, bars and clubs and are now asking themselves, Why? And, what’s the point in working so damn hard to break even? Which surely means working at a loss?
Of course, depending on one’s networking skills and the quality of the product, there are the success stories. And though some have “laundromats” behind their perceived success and “Crazy Rich Asians” old family money while we all know the “celebrity scammers” who outstayed their welcome and were finally forced to disappear and lead a more low key lifestyle somewhere else in the region until a new sucker came along, Hong Kong today has so much of everything that there’s too much to go around and feed the forty thousand.
Where did it all go wrong? Hmmmm. Wild moments of delusional thinking and wanting to be seen as player? Not really doing the maths? Expanding when the belt should have been tightened?
The wrong business model? Not knowing to leave when the going was good? There’s a laundry list of reasons.
Me? I’m still waiting for the comeback of the HK$2 box lunch and keeping the reality check in, well, check.
#Hongkong #restaurants #supplyanddemand #JimmysKitchen #Czarina #CintaJ #LaTaverna