Rachael Oakes Ash samples Hong Kong's booming underground restaurant scene.
Status is king in Hong Kong, whose 7 million residents include 84,000 millionaires and tens of thousands of cashed-up expats with company credit cards charging French champagne, Cuban cigars and private club memberships.
It made sense, then, that the illustrious Michelin food guide turned to Hong Kong in 2010, awarding stars to the city's best-judged restaurants and putting them on a global status map where the inner status circle jump the queue.
But beneath the rampant fine-dining obsession lies an underground movement that celebrates a return to home. The private kitchens of Hong Kong were initially set up in the late '90s to avoid the high rents and fit-out costs of restaurants in the world's third most densely populated city.
Many would-be chefs and foodies simply opened their kitchen door, charged less than the restaurant down the road for a set menu and accepted as many diners as their smaller kitchens could allow.
Da Ping Huo was one of the first, founded in 1998 by a photographer artist and serving up Szechuan cuisine in a basement; no sign, just a door and a chef that sings Chinese opera at the end of the meal. Foodies can expect a degustation meal for about $45, opera is complimentary.
Fourteen years after Da Ping Huo opened, the private kitchens of Hong Kong have evolved and provide an exciting, and sometimes less expensive, way to experience the heartbeat of the city.
Today's private kitchens range from communal dining with strangers around a table for 20 in a private residence to Michelin-trained chefs looking to showcase their own creativity away from the restrictions of a commercial restaurant. Regardless of the premise, all offer an intimate dining experience.
Margaret Xu is a self-confessed rebel. The Hong Kong-born-and-bred former advertising creative turned celebrity chef is an advocate for organic cuisine in a city that is akin to an environmentalist's Armageddon.
She tolls her organic farm in the New Territories daily for fresh produce for her Yin Yang private dining restaurant.
"I do my own kind of foraging," says the diminutive chef with the mammoth smile.
"I go out in my friends' boats and scavenge for sea urchin, which we use in a pesto. The screw pineapples we use in the pina colada crab dish are only found on some islands, which I potter across to when they are in season."
We're sitting at one of only three small tables for four in the ground-floor dining room of Xu's three-story historic terrace in the backstreets of the red lights of Wan Chai.
The government gifted her the building to promote local produce to tourists. Xu spends her time with a sous chef and a commis chef in an equally tiny kitchen on the middle floor solving the city's environmental problems one clay oven-baked organic chicken at a time. The entrance to the kitchen is filled with preserved goodies plucked from her garden. The third floor is reserved for private functions.
There's no menu. Just a table set for two with bark and twigs holding rolled paper tied with string that reveals the courses for the night.
"The iPhone must eat first," Xu says, laughing, as my guest and I start snapping before the meal has even been served. "It is a saying we have in Hong Kong."
The 11 dishes we are served literally take days of preparation - everything is stone ground by hand, including the tofu, and each piece has a special place on the plate.
Summer forest salads with cold noodles, wild prawns and sea urchin pesto set the tone before the crab pina colada steals the show. A mound of freshly plucked crabmeat on a bed of coconut and pineapple ice. All this before Xu's signature "soup without water" and "yellow earth chicken" and her own take on XO sauce, dubbed XU sauce, with a miso base.
There's no fuss, no shining Riedel crystal glasses or leather-bound wine lists. There is, however, a wildlife soundtrack mimicking the sounds of the forest as an audio oasis from the chaos outside the front door.
A favourite with expat locals, TBLS Kitchen Studio, on famed Hollywood Road in Hong Kong Central, has double the table numbers of Yin Yang and a changing comfort-food menu inspired by global regions each month. The theme the night I arrive is Brooklyn Bistro.
Not surprising from a Vietnamese-born chef (Que Vinh Dang) who was raised in the US and spent time in the kitchens of New York crafting French cuisine.
Guests at TBLS need a security code, obtained on the day of dining, to access the small private apartment building. The studio kitchen is accessed by a small elevator. Menus are set, interiors are modern, with an open kitchen for any solo diners to sit at and food plating comes with a twist.
Amuse bouche is served in a retro glass canister, soup and sandwich entree is American brisket in a bun and dessert is inspired by Snickers with smashed peanuts, salted caramel and chocolate ganache. Let's just say there's a reason expats keep the restaurant booked out weeks ahead.
Adding spice to the private kitchen mix is Magnolia, a communal dining kitchen serving up New Orleans-style Cajun and Creole cuisine from New Orleans native Lori Granito. Be prepared to book ahead and pre-pay for your seat at the table for 20 as Granito only opens the door to her private home three nights a week.
Drinks are served first in the "parlour" so guests can mingle before a full New Orleans-styled and sized meal served "family style" with steaming plates piled high. Expect seafood gumbo, Cajun ribs, corn bread, pecan pie and bourbon cream wielded in the kitchen by Granito herself - all for a mere $60 a head including tea and coffee, though it is BYO.
The writer travelled to Hong Kong courtesy of Qantas Airways.
Private dining in Hong Kong
Margaret Xu's authentic Hong Kong cuisine — organic produce in a heritage-listed building. Lunch and dinner, Monday to Saturday. From $85 a head plus alcohol. 18 Ship Street, Wan Chai. (852) 2866 0868, www.yinyang.hk.
TBLS Kitchen Studio
Quirky comfort food with a fine-dining twist in a private apartment-turned-kitchen studio. Dinner only, Monday to Saturday. From $42 for a six-course menu. 7th floor, 31 Hollywood Road, Central. (852) 2544 3433, tbls-kitchenstudio.com.
Cajun-Creole in a communal dining setting in the private home of New Orleans native Lori Granito. Thursday, Friday, Saturday dinner. Pre-pay for booking. About $60 plus BYO. Shop 5, 17 Po Yan Street, Sheung Wan. (852) 2530 9880, magnolia.hk.
Michelin-trained chef Esther "Tata" Sham serves Japanese, Shanghainese and American menu options in an apartment-style setting in Wan Chai. One table with 10 settings. From $75 a person.Flat 1c Moonstar Court, 2D Star Street. Wan Chai, (852) 9403 6430, tapantry.wordpress.com.
Da Ping Huo
Szechuan cuisine set menu in underground art studio-turned-restaurant and a chef that sings Chinese opera. Dinner only. No credit cards. From $45 for set menu. 49 Hollywood Road, Soho. (852) 2559 1317.
Art gallery and artist studio by day, private kitchen by night. From $60 a head. Ground Floor, GB27-28, Lei King Wan, 45 Tai Hong Street, Sai Wan Ho. gitone.hk.
More high-end dining than the others, this intimate offering started as a test kitchen for Canada's top chef Makoto and is now lauded globally. Sixteen seats, seven courses. From $100 for 10-course degustation. 26/F Stanley 11, 11 Stanley Street, Central. (852) 5186 3282, libertypw.hk.
Hong Kong artist-owned, French flea market-inspired decor with quirky fit-out and equally humbling French food. From $36 for set menu. Level 6, 83 Wan Chai Road, Wan Chai. (852) 3428 5824, blanc.com.hk.
Qantas flies daily to Hong Kong from Sydney. 13 13 13, qantas.com.au.
Novotel Century in Wan Chai is in the heart of the entertainment district. Standard room rates from $295. novotelhongkongcentury.com.
Mandarin Oriental, luxury hotel home to the one-Michelin star Pierre restaurant and one-Michelin star Mandarin Grill + Bar. Standard room rates from $550. mandarinoriental.com/hongkong.