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Food & Travel

Precious and nearly private

Speakeasy restaurants draw natives, tourists

Making mapo tofu in the kitchen at Da Ping Huo. Making mapo tofu in the kitchen at Da Ping Huo. (Yalun Tu for the Boston Globe)
By Yalun Tu
Globe Correspondent / October 27, 2010

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HONG KONG — When he takes out-of-town visitors for dinner, Chris Hougland, a banker, has an ace up his sleeve. “I start by walking them down the main streets, right past the big commercial restaurants, until we stop at an old dingy building,’’ he says. “I then tell them we’re picking up a friend and we walk up to what looks like someone’s apartment. It’s only when they open the door do they realize that we’re at this beautiful restaurant right in the middle of nowhere.’’

Hougland, 26, and guests have walked into one of Hong Kong’s private kitchens, small speakeasy restaurants located in commercial or residential buildings all over the island. Popularized in the late ’90s, the first private kitchens often laid out meals in the chef’s own apartment with one menu, a few tables, and one seating per evening. Diners had to book weeks, sometimes months, in advance. The fare was always billed as the most authentic Chinese regional cuisine. Recommendations were largely word-of-mouth and dinner was always a cash-only affair, as most proprietors could not afford (or did not wish) to pay the business registration and government licensing fees.

Today’s private kitchens cater to an upper-middle-class population, and dinners cost $25 to $50, a good value in a very expensive city. The clientele has grown from local in-the-know Chinese to expatriates and food tourists looking for authentic cuisine and adventure. When the dot-com crash shortened the lines at all restaurants, many private kitchens had to close their doors. Then in 2003, the SARS outbreak served as a renaissance for some of the kitchens. Diners became fearful of large spaces and unsure where restaurateurs were buying their ingredients. More people crowded into the private dining rooms with few other patrons and a chef who sourced food locally.

The private kitchen Da Ping Huo has seen its clientele change in the 12 years it has been open. Its spicy and succulent mapo tofu includes beef, garlic, and chilies. Somewhat ubiquitous in Chinese restaurants, mapo tofu is different in every chef’s hands; Da Ping Huo’s is generally acclaimed as one of the most authentic in Hong Kong.

The Chinese phrase for private kitchen is “zi fong choi’’ (literally “private room menu’’). Food lore says private kitchens date to the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, when the court chefs suddenly found themselves out of work. To make ends meet, they took to entertaining in their homes, preparing special set meals for a fee. Nowadays private kitchens have become more varied, more established, and more closely akin to small restaurants, though a small contingent of unlicensed private kitchens still operate under the radar. Legal or not, they have largely maintained their hallmarks: a set menu, one to two seatings, and no signs or advertising. The scope, however, has grown, and in addition to regional Chinese cooking, you can find Japanese, Italian, French, and even Creole menus.

From their hole-in-the-wall beginnings, private kitchens remain a unique facet of the Hong Kong culinary tradition, giving guests a chance to sit back in a small apartment setting, dine well, and focus on the food. The fact that it’s in a secret location only adds to the allure.

Yalun Tu can be reached at yalun.tu@gmail.com.

On the beaten path
These private kitchens in Hong Kong offer delectable food and good value.
Yellow Door
6/F, Cheung Hing Commercial Bldg., 37 Cochrane St., Central; 011-852-2858-6555.
Cost: $38 per person for 15 courses.
Founded in 1998 by renowned food and art critic Lau Kin Wai, one of the first and longest-running private kitchens in the region. Today, Lau’s son Chun manages the all-female kitchen staff. Sichuan cuisine, with spicy, pungent flavors.
Da Ping Huo
49 Hollywood Road, Central; 011-852-2559-1317. Cost: $35 per person for 12 courses.
Husband-and-wife Wang Hai and Wang Xiaoqing opened this place in 1998, serving Sichuan dishes in a space adorned with their own paintings and photographs. Wang Xiaoqing is the chef, supported by an almost entirely female team. She believes customers “can taste the difference if a meal is cooked by a man or a woman.’’ Mapo tofu is one of the most authentic in Hong Kong. The chef, an accomplished opera singer, performs a traditional piece at the end of each meal.
Xi Yan Private Dining Restaurant
3/F, 83 Wan Chai Road, Wan Chai;
011-852-2575-6966. Cost: $55 per person
for 12 courses.
Owner Jacky Yu is probably the closest thing Hong Kong has to a celebrity chef. His dishes are best described as modern Chinese, offering a twist on regional fare, such as osmanthus (an edible flower) smoked egg quartet; abalone stewed in sake sauce; or custard glutinous dumplings with sweet-potato ginger soup.
Blue Duck Workshop
2/F, 28 Stanley St., Central; 011-852-3175-2448. Cost: $38 per person for 6 courses.
A well-hidden downtown spot in a small commercial building, it serves traditional French food. The dining room and kitchen are the same room, so diners can watch as their meals are cooked on minimal equipment. Chef Henry Chung and his wife, Esther, serve a rotating menu of specialties such as truffled eggs; roast quail with foie gras and chestnuts; and chestnut fondant with ice cream. Chung will prepare menus chosen in advance by customers.
Magnolia
Shop 5, G/F, 17 Po Yan St., Sheung Wan; 011-852-2530-9880. Cost $58 per person
for 8+ courses
New Orleans native Lori Granito started this place in 2004, after her restaurant Bayou folded during the SARS outbreak. She serves Creole food; corn bread, pork ribs, and pecan pie are dished up family-style to large communal tables in three rooms upstairs or at a chef’s table downstairs. BYOB. — YALUN TU