When you talk about an artsy crowd in Hong Kong, you’re talking about bankers with tax-free bonuses who collect Yuan Yuans for fun and have Jay Jopling on speed dial. And, whilst annoyingly, this crowd of moneyed expats does occasionally gatecrash the hipster bars in more far-flung neighbourhoods, they’re far more happy to be cosseted in the art-strewn walls of venues like Duddell’s, which sits beautifully above the Shanghai Tang store in Central.
As is often the case with Hong Kong restaurant openings, the scene-rippling debuts come from tried and tested partnerships. Duddell’s comes from the stable belonging to Alan Lo, Paulo Pong and Yenn Wong, who are also responsible for The Press Room Group, 208 Duecento Otto and 22 Ships (amongst many, many other ventures). The Ilse Crawford-designed space is as lovely as you’d expect, made even more striking by the addition of beautiful pieces of art. This is not a random collection of works by friends or wannabe artists, but a very carefully curated body of work by renowned Chinese artists, handpicked for the site. In fact, such is the group’s commitment to exhibiting and showcasing Chinese art and artists, that Ai Wei Wei sits on Duddell’s art committee.
Downstairs is the restaurant space and upstairs – it is clear before you’ve even seen it – sits the bar area where DJs blast out a questionable choice in tuneage. While we’re downstairs our dinner conversation was drowned out at times by the repetitive beats and, at one point, by what appeared to be tuneless karaoke. Surely not.
The food was, I hope, a poor representation of what’s normally on offer. Perhaps it was our large table, there to celebrate 20 years of Virgin Atlantic flying direct to Hong Kong? But a chef of Siu Hin Chi’s standing must surely be ready for such events, especially as this space is used for some of the city’s most exclusive launches. However, it seems the HK foodie set has given the food her incredibly mixed reviews; about the only thing anyone ever agrees on is the sometimes shocking service. Our waiter snatched away food before it was finished on a number of occasions, refused to engage us when we asked questions, and audibly sighed as we selected another bottle of wine from the beautifully chosen list. No arguments from me about the foodies’ consensus.
The restaurant has recently been awarded a Michelin star, and as the sharpest amongst my group pointed out, stars are harder to hold onto than to win. I’ll be back for dim sum when I’m next in town, as this is the venue’s real go-to. On a wet, humid night in May, though, my seven-course tasting menu seemed to have been handled with a manifest lack of care: meat was gristly, stocks flavourless, and certain flaccid dishes felt in the mouth as though they’d been left under a low light for far too long. I had had better rice and noodle dishes that afternoon at Tak Yu, a formica-clad hut clad in bamboo scaffolding in Wan Chai, where I paid pennies for my food and was welcomed warmly.
Just as our cocktails (creative, delicious and spiked with top-shelf goodness) arrived, phones pinged around us declaring a “black rain” weather warning
Duddell’s outdoor terrace is a huge draw in this vertiginous city. From here you look out over the teeming streets below, overshadowed by some of the Island’s tallest and most dramatic structures. Hong Kong’s skyline is, at times, a breathtakingly ugly affair, all postmodern high-rises and communist block utilitarianism, with the odd beacon of beauty, but the towers’ individual brashness and brutality make for an inspiring collective gorgeousness. The terrace, with a glass of something in hand, is one of the most lovely spots in all of the city from which to enjoy it.
After dinner, we ventured upstairs to brave the beats being dropped by a man whose face was painted like a skull, whilst around him everyone lounged in formal suits and dinner dress. Upstairs is where bar manager Mark Jenner’s extraordinary collection of drinks lives; the Brit, who described himself to us as a “bacchanalist” (as opposed – vehemently – to a mixologist), is obsessive about sourcing hard-to-find vintage spirits, with his eye for detail even focusing beadily on the right kind of tonic – he favours New Zealand’s East Imperial tonic, a traditionally made, quinine-heavy and almost savoury mixer that allows a gin to shine. It’s an incredible collection for anyone that knows their Bordeaux cask-aged Glenmorangie from their rye. See if you can grab a few minutes of his time and get him to mix you a drink.
Sadly we were not allowed to make the most of the terrace that night. Just as our cocktails (creative, delicious and spiked with top-shelf goodness) arrived, phones pinged around us declaring a “black rain” weather warning. Not only would the terrace be out of bounds as the rain lashed violently down, it meant that we were going to be holed up in Duddell’s for at least a couple of hours while the typhoon-strength rain moved across the city: when the weather’s this bad, even the taxis stop running. So we decided to make a dent in Jenner’s collection. There are far worse places to be stranded in Hong Kong, it has to be said. Especially once the DJ packs up and a more gentle collection of beats takes over. C
Duddell’s, Levels 3 & 4, Shanghai Tang Mansion, 1 Duddell Street, Central, Hong Kong, China
+852 2525 9191; duddells.co