South East Asian Cuisine Spices Up Hong Kong Dining
Travel around the region has changed HK foodies’ habits and tastes. See what concepts are developing to cater to this major shift in dining patterns.
With prominently positioned cocktail bars mixing signature beverages, the smorgasbord of restaurants now serving contemporary South East Asian food across Hong Kong are a far cry from the food stalls and takeaways commonly associated with the cuisine.
"The concepts we are seeing are offering more modern South East Asian dining experiences," says Michelle Chiu, head of JLL's F&B and Lifestyle Retail team. "There are some really interesting fusion menus, and the restaurants are somewhere where you can not only dine, but enjoy drinks with your friends."
Take Apinara in Pacific Place, which opened as part of the mall's recent F&B upgrade. A franchise of highly successful Bangkok restaurant Nara, Apinara's bar beckons to nearby office workers, and drives foot traffic.
"Hong Kong is so close to Thailand and other South East Asian countries that local diners have a real affinity with Thai cuisine," says Pearl Shek, Director at Apinara.
Chiu agrees. "Hong Kong diners have a very sophisticated palette, and are already very accustomed to South East Asian food," she adds. "There has been a major shift in dining patterns recently, and that has been a springboard for a lot of major restaurant groups to open concepts that showcase those flavours."
Food lovers' shifting tastes have prompted major restaurant groups such as JIA―responsible for Duddell's and 208 Duecento Otto―to bring Potato Head from Bali to Hong Kong, and Thai restaurant, Mak Mak, to luxury mall The Landmark. Previously predominantly focused on Western cuisine, The Black Sheep Group, recently opened Le Garcon Saigon in Wan Chai and Soul Food in SoHo, a spin off from a crowd-pleasing restaurant in Bangkok. Thai concept Samsen is also attracting buzz – and lengthy queues – in Wan Chai's Stone Nullah Lane.
Chiu and her team recently visited several culinary capitals, including New York and London, to get a sense of global F&B appetites. "Hong Kong F&B operators are very on trend – the shift towards smaller concepts and Asian-focused menus was a trend we've seen around the world," she explains, adding that the Asian restaurant concepts popping up in Hong Kong are more sophisticated than those she's seen elsewhere – especially in terms of South East Asian cuisine.
So are bowls of steaming noodles served with Asian signature cocktails set to replace fine French dining in Hong Kong altogether?
"There is a definite shift away from more rigid and structured white tablecloth dining," notes Shek. "There is a clear trend toward more casual, dynamic concepts. At Apinara, we're trying to add finesse to Thai cuisine, while serving it in a more casual setting."
Chiu agrees. "I think Italian, French and other Western dining will remain very popular, but instead of their traditional large-scale formats with multi-course tasting menus and wine pairings, we see many operations moving towards smaller restaurant settings with more shared slants and fresh seasonal items," she says. "Larger spaces, around 3,000 square feet and above, used to be in high demand, but operators are now willing to consider anything from 1,500 to 2,000 square feet, which gives them many more options in the market."
It looks like South East Asian cuisine will be tantalising Hong Kong foodies' tastebuds for quite some time to come.