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Tuesday 6 March 2012

Zone D Private Kitchen: A Saturday Night in Unchartered Territory

Its Saturday night in Hong Kong, it's 8pm and I'm in the middle of Causeway Bay.

For non-Hong Kongers, an aside is probably necessary here.  Causeway Bay is an area in central Hong Kong Island known particularly for shopping.  It's incredibly busy whatever the hour, neon lit with swarming pavements and crossings and home of Times Square, a huge indoor shopping complex housing everything from Zara to Bottega Veneta and Adidas to Bose.  I may brave it on a Saturday morning if I'm in desperate need of a shopping fix.  I will battle my way through the crowds on a Tuesday lunchtime if there's a particularly good sample sale to hit up.  And when I need cheap, flat-packed, MDF furniture I'll head here on a Thursday evening after work to endure Ikea.  But Causeway Bay is most definitely not my usual Saturday night haunt.

There really can be only one explanation for being in Causeway Bay on a Saturday evening.  I am en route to a private kitchen.

Again, a footnote may be needed.  Private kitchens, speakeasy-like restaurants, are a bit of a Hong Kong speciality.  Springing up in the early nineties when chefs decided to avoid high restaurant rents and extensive government regulation by setting up shop in their own homes, private kitchens were a way to eat good food for a great price while smugly patting yourself on the back for being so in the know.  There's much chatter about the private kitchen being dead these days and perhaps today's private kitchens aren't what they were pre-SARs, but there's still something special about seeking out a restaurant hidden away in an anonymous apartment block in a city where everything else is so noisy and neon and in your face.  Often bring your own, usually advertised by word-of-mouth whispers and always best with a big, rowdy group of your favourite people, I love trying out new private kitchens.

Which brings us back to Saturday night at 8pm in the middle of Causeway Bay on a random weekend last month when I decided to try a private kitchen I'd been meaning to try for a while, Zone D.  The night before had involved a wine-soaked seafood dinner on Lantau (an island about a half an hour's boat ride from Hong Kong island) which had culminated in the loss of my camera and a large hangover.  So, still feeling the effects of the night before, sans camera but armed with a couple of bottles of Sauvignon Blanc, I eventually found number 16 on bustling Matheson Street.  Without the address diligently saved on my Blackberry, I'd have been none the wiser to this doorway leading to anything other than a block of Hong Kong apartments but after climbing four flights of grubby stairwell, a front door was opened to reveal a cosy little restaurant.

The decor's not flashy, its not even shabby chic, its pretty basic but still homey and sweet.  As you come through the door there's a small bar to your right and a curtained area directly in front of you where the keen early arrivals were already getting stuck into the wine.   To the left two long tables were laid with red table cloths ready to seat our hungry mob of twenty six.  I'd booked out the whole place as I quite like the dinner party feel of taking a private kitchen over but usually Zone D operates as a usual restaurant taking several bookings a night of smaller groups.

After we'd all said our hellos and the stragglers had arrived, we sat down and we descended on bread baskets of sun-dried tomato studded focaccia.  The deal is five courses of loosely Italian food for HK$350 per head.  When you book, you're emailed a menu from which you select what you'd like to eat.  There's a choice of two starters, three main courses and two desserts with two other fixed courses sandwiched in between.  Some options using more expensive ingredients like foie gras or beef carry a small surcharge but all in all its pretty great value even for a private kitchen.

After about thirty minutes, the starters were served.  I'd opted for beef carpaccio which was peppery and truffley and delicious.  The alternative was pan-fried foie gras which I stole a forkful of from my next door diner.  The foie gras was perfectly crisp on the outside and buttery and rich inside; maybe even a little more delicious than the carpaccio (which is saying something).  After a gentle pause the next course arrived, the first of the fixed courses, lobster soup.  I'm not usually a huge fan of seafood soups but this surpassed my expectations with chunks of sweet meat in a very tasty soup.  After the second course was cleared and a slightly longer pause, we were served our second fixed course, mushroom risotto.  Perfectly cooked, this delicious risotto again had a distinct truffle flavour.  So far, so great, everyone was enjoying supper and making heavy inroads into the stock of wine we'd brought along.

There was then a lull for rather a long time which unfortunately provided us with the opportunity to get a little expat obnoxious.  There was much gunpunching and a bit of Amy Winehands (a game where a bottle of wine is taped to each of your hands and hilarity ensues as you try to do anything before the wine in each bottle is finished/spilt).  The only plus side to having lost my camera the previous night is that there is no photographic evidence of this stage of the night bar a few grainy blackberry photos which I won't reproduce in this post.

By the time the main courses arrived, we were all a little worse for wear.  I'd chosen the seabass which was pan-fried and sat atop a small serving of mashed potato and accompanied by a couple of cherry tomatoes.  Well worth the wait, another perfectly executed course.  The other choices were chicken and steak.  Due to my inebriated state, I forget what the general consensus on the chicken was but the resounding feedback on the steak was that it was awful; tough, cold and overcooked.  Particularly disappointing given the quality of the rest of the meal and the fact that there was a surcharge for this option.

But, a short break later and dessert was served quelling any grumblings about the main course and the slow service.  I went for the molten chocolate pudding which was rich and gooey and all gone in about two minutes despite the fact that I'd just wolfed four prior courses.  The other option was creme brulee which also got thumbs up all round.

The bill came in at HK$390 a head which was ridiculously cheap for the quantity and quality of food especially given that when I booked we were told that after the first fifteen bottles, corkage of HK$50 would be charged on each bottle of wine (we must have had at least 26 bottles of wine).  After double checking we were assured that the bill was correct, so full to bursting, we paid up and headed off for a couple of nightcaps in more familiar territory, Lang Kwai Fong.

All in all, bar the steak, the food was outstanding particularly for the price.  I think that the slow service can probably be explained by the fact that there were twenty six of us all needing to be fed five courses at the exact same time and I am pretty certain that there was a maximum of two people in the kitchen producing the delicious food.  Having said that, if you agree to host twenty six people, you should make sure that you're able to serve that number of people without half hour pauses between courses.  Despite the speed of service we had a super fun, raucous evening filled with great food and far too much wine.  I'd definitely recommend Zone D and I'm even considering venturing down to Causeway Bay on a more regular basis for more than just sample sales and Swedish, flat-packed bedside tables in future.

Zone-D Ristorante
Room 16, Fourth Floor, 
No. 16 Matheson Street, 
Causeway Bay.
+(852) 9802-5504 
Cash Only

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