HONG KONG: Although Hong Kong has a wide selection of great dining options, it’s tricky trying to find a place that gives you value for money, yet without sacrificing on the quality of food and ambience of the restaurant.
Take for example roast meat eateries. They’re often lively places with fantastic food, but chances are, you’re likely to rush through your meal, which can be a little unsettling, especially when you want to have a great conversation with your mates or date.
A relatively posh Western restaurant probably has a great menu and an even nicer environment to dine in, but a meal would probably cost you a pretty penny, and that’s if your companions don’t mind sharing that cost.
Which is why I heart ABC Kitchen, a curious case of contradictions.
Located on the top floor of the always bustling Queen Street Cooked Food Market, the Kitchen is easy to find – just look for the red-and-white checkered tablecloth. ABC Kitchen is really just a stall tucked among a handful of Chinese and Indian eateries. The tables are communal, although Joe Lau, one of the co-owners, said that the friendly neighbours have worked out a way to allocate the limited space among themselves.
Do not be fooled by the humble setup. Here, it serves up some serious culinary gems. On my last few visits, different types of soufflés and pan-roast pigeon were on the menu. Served with polenta and asparagus, the pigeon came out pink, flavourful and tender, not an easy feat especially with a lean little bird.
This particular time, the pigeon is no longer on the menu (it changes every quarter), together with the delightful pear, blue cheese and caramelised walnut salad. So my dining companions and I ordered the pan-fried foie gras with gooseberry chutney (US$16) and a simple green salad (US$5).
The fatty liver is rich, buttery and melts in your mouth, and the greasiness of the whole dish is offset by the tartness and brightness of the gooseberries. And who would have thought that a fine dish like foie gras would make an appearance in a market.
“We save money on rent, so we can put more (quality ingredient) into our food,” he said. In fact, he gets his duck confit from France and foie gras from Hungary. (French foie gras supply has been disrupted by bird flu outbreaks in 2016.)
Next on our list was the duck confit with green pea puree and rhubarb salad (US$25) and baked lamb fillet with potato galette and sautéed spinach (US$27).
Rich and unctuous with a crispy skin, the duck confit was enjoyable. The rhubarb could do with a wee bit more seasoning, but overall it was a delicious combination that would have cost a lot more in other restaurants in Hong Kong.
The lamb arrived slightly tough but still pink, as per our order. The potato galette though was thinly sliced and buttery as it should be.
And for desserts, we had the rhubarb and apple crumble served with vanilla ice cream (US$6).
ABC Kitchen also has an interesting wine list that’s reasonably priced. The best part? It charges no corkage even if you bring your own bottle.
So how did Joe end up starting ABC Market?
It all began when he went to Europe at 23 years old. Up until then, Joe admitted that he had very little exposure to Western food.
“It was one of those Hong Kong tours that took you to 12 cities in 10 days,” he said. He dreaded the bus tour that woke him up early in the morning and kept him on the road till late at night.
“But I remember Rome and Pisa. I remember people eating on the street.”
Joe later spent years working at the now defunct M at the Fringe, a fine dining institution in Hong Kong.
“If you wanted to have a Western dinner then, you had to dress up. I kept thinking ‘I am here for the food, why do I need to do all of that?’” Joe said.
When M closed in 2009, Joe grabbed chance to own his dream eatery. Together with his brother Eddie, they talked M’s junior chef Jack Lau into setting up ABC Kitchen.
Jack, a young man of few words, likes to experiment with his food, but he always keeps a few signature dishes on the menu. The item he’s most proud of? The suckling pig, which one Foursquare review hails as “life changing”.
Jack and Joe are proud of what they have achieved, although there are times when they feel slightly defeated by their customers.
“A lot of times, local diners don’t like pasta cooked al dente,” Joe said, as Jack looks on shaking his head. “They like it much softer.”
“But we don’t mind that,” Joe added. “Some people order oysters after eating suckling pig, that’s okay too.”
As the night wore on, the entire dining floor started filling up with both locals and foreigners. And as copious amount of alcohol continued to flow, the space became increasingly rowdy, not unlike a Chinese wedding banquet.
ABC Kitchen is at Queen Street Cooked Food Market, 38 Des Voeux Road.
Lunch starts at US$6. Dinner for two without wine is about US$83.