By: Erica Nonni, Foodable Contributor
Ask someone in the U.S. to define the term arcane and you may hear words like antiquated, complex, and legalistic. Ask Google and you’ll find “understood by few; mysterious or secret.” Ask Chef Shane Osborn of two-Michelin-star Pied à Terre restaurant fame (London), and you’ll receive a thoughtful description of discreet and exclusive fine dining in the heart of Hong Kong. It is here in Hong Kong’s Central district that Chef Osborn’s restaurant, Arcane, opened just over one year ago.
Arcane feels like a power broker’s daily lunch spot. It almost certainly is, given its location amongst the Central district’s gleaming luxury shops and slick office suites, tucked away on an upper floor of an office block on a side street. It is too understated to feel like a destination for visiting foodies from abroad, although it probably is that, too. Given Chef Osborn’s renown and the quality of his cuisine, Arcane is too special to confine to the business lunch category. Yet its sedate ambiance and Burgundy-driven wine list (sourced from the excellent fine wine merchant, L’Imperatrice) do not invite ready comparison to new openings in global peer cities like New York, London, and Shanghai.
In other global cities, fusion experiments abound. Farm-to-table menus served atop reclaimed wood tables are standard fare. The irony of enjoying an expensive meal on a hard, backless bench or in a retro diner-style booth is lost because the experience becomes so diffuse that it is no longer novel.
Chef Osborn, a gregarious and engaging host with obvious culinary talent, serious business vision, and bright curiosity, can be seen cooking alongside his team in the open kitchen at Arcane. He describes his vision for Arcane as a place where some trappings of fine dining — such as the champagne trolley — are absent. There is no grand ground floor entrance with attendants holding the doors. To Arcane’s expat and old-school Hong Kong clientele, this is subtle innovation. The open kitchen is not standard in such a fine restaurant but neither is it shocking. A diner feels a connection to the open kitchen but is not distracted by it. This, too, is innovation.
Hong Kong Chefs Forgo Fusion
Another much buzzed-about and relatively new opening in Hong Kong, Chachawan, is a traditional Thai restaurant that highlights the cuisine of Thailand’s northeast Isaan region. This trendy and very popular foodie destination is directed by the young, celebrated trio of chef Adam Cliff and restaurateurs Yenn Wong and Alan Lo. Chachawan’s approach hews to the authentic. There is no Thai-Cantonese fusion; this is certainly no Sushi Samba. Neither does it proffer elegant versions of generic curries or recognizable noodle dishes. It’s not even a modern take on a single theme, like Zuma (which does have a Hong Kong location) with its modern Japanese. Chachawan gives diners a real taste of the region it represents.
Other restaurants in Wong and Lo’s group include the Duddell’s, classic Cantonese with a dedicated dim sum menu, and the convincingly Italian restaurant 208 Duecento Otto, with such markers of attention to regional authenticity as ‘nduja and Cinta Senese.
Similarly, Arcane is a delicious and decidedly Western (or perhaps more accurately, Australian, like Chef Osborn) restaurant. It does showcase the occasional Asian flavor -- a whiff of wasabi here, a dash of dashi there –- but it is foremost the best place in Hong Kong to enjoy the European wonders of pumpkin risotto and sautéed spaetzle.
Here might be found an insight about the Hong Kong restaurant scene: this city, which could reasonably be expected to be Asia’s best example of a melting pot metropolis and a beacon of new, edgy and forward-thinking food, actually has quite a straightforward dining culture. This city of countless congee shops (casual breakfast spots serving rice porridge to locals), boundless expense accounts, and impossibly luxurious shopping malls shows its dining scene evolution through nuance and discipline rather than flash.
In its way, Hong Kong may be what other global cities once were. New York had its staid steakhouses and heaving wine lists of heavy Cabernet Sauvignon. Nowadays places open up like Combina, an Israeli-Spanish restaurant that moved into a space formerly held by a Japanese-Mexican fusion spot, while sommeliers vie for the weirdest bottles they can source and bartenders wrangle unknown spirits over borders and onto bar displays. London was once known for it’s lack of good food, and now it’s a pedestal where the world’s most talented chefs build names for themselves and new concepts for the global dining industry to emulate.
Or perhaps other cities are what Hong Kong once was: a melting pot of flavors that eventually form a single cuisine and a nuanced approach so well integrated, so purely interpreted, and so well executed that they are nearly indistinguishable from their dominant influence.