When a new restaurant opens in the latest high-rise in the heart of Central with a catchphrase of “Michelin for the masses”, one suspects there must be a hitch somewhere. So when the Ore-no chain from Japan announced its first foreign restaurant in Hong Kong, my assumption that they’d export their standing tables policy led to scepticism. Yes, the Japanese branch earned two Michelin stars within five months of opening in 2012 and has, even more impressively, been able to maintain them. Yes, quick table turnover is the only way to keep costs down without compromising the quality of ingredients. Yes, rent in Hong Kong is amongst the highest in the world. But surely it is not too much to ask for a sit-down meal? Then again, the restaurant is in the spanking new California Building, marketed as a “tremendous spot for Hong Kong entertainment” in Lan Kwai Fong.
Lan Kwai Fong has long been the go-to place for a taste of Hong Kong’s nightlife. Its convenient location in Central (a five-minute-albeit–uphill-walk from the Mandarin and Harvey Nichols) has drawn a very well-heeled and diverse crowd, be it tourists, celebs, expats, or even local rich kids coming back for holiday from wherever in the world they were sent to school. However, for the past half a decade, LKF’s reputation as a premium entertainment area has taken a dive. This period saw the knocking down of the iconic California Tower which used to house some of the most popular night clubs, the installation of a Hard Rock Café where lifeless tourists would chow down on sad-looking burgers, and the release of a film franchise under the LKF name, only to turn out as tasteless and irrelevant as Pamela Anderson’s back catalogue. No wonder local celebrity chef Harlan Goldstein would describe this once-swanky area as “really low-class”.
In 2015, Hong Kong nightlife’s godfather Allan Zemen reintroduced the new California Tower. The swanky twenty-seven-storey, high-ceilinged entertainment complex injects desperately needed glamour to the fading area. It also helps when Gordon Ramsey, Harlan Goldstein and David Laris open restaurants in the area!
On my way to Ore-no for lunch I stepped into the impressive building with apprehension and jetted up to the sixth floor. The elevator opened. And here comes the moment of truth – seats or no seats?
Ore-YES! There are seats! In fact, the sit-down tables occupy almost the entire restaurant, with only a few standing tables by the entrance, unsurprisingly unoccupied. Despite the no-booking policy during lunch, the queue was not too bad and we were seated after about ten minutes. However, our table was so small, as was everyone else’s, that it could only fit two menus. And the tables were set so close to each other that our elbows almost touched our neighbours’. It certainly lives up to the bill “for the masses”.
We stoically moved onto the lunch menu, which offers about fifteen sets. It’s diverse enough, with sushi, sashimi, tempura and other cooked dishes all on show. Just as we were studying the menu, a young and energetic waiter, who was frantically buzzing around the tables, approached us with a recommendation of their daily special, which included both duck meatballs in broth and their signature black cod Saikyo Yaki, and their fresh sashimi, which is jet-flown from Japan daily. The two of us finally settled for a daily special set and a sashimi-and–tempura combo.
Service was swift and efficient with regular refilling of our complimentary green tea. Two trays of gorgeously presented food were served ten minutes after ordering. Both sets came with the standard pickles, miso soup and a bowl of rice. The duck meatballs in clear broth were served in a small metal wok, and garnished with slices of purple daikon and radishes; the cod looked perfectly grilled; the golden nuggets of fish, prawn and pumpkin look as good as tempura gets; the glittering sashimi only highlighted its impossible freshness. We were so impressed by the presentation of the food that we almost, but not quite, forgave the size of the impractically small table.
We tucked into the food as quickly as we could, though not without difficulty considering the lack of space. I started off with the duck meatballs in broth whilst my partner dug her hands (or chopsticks, even) into the sashimi. The broth was light with subtle flavour of dashi and the vegetable and complemented well the richer duck meatballs which were smooth in texture. It was a good summer dish without compromising on flavour. My partner’s sashimi included salmon, scallop, Bluefin tuna and sea urchin. They were, true to the waiter’s pitch, fresh and clean on the palate. The highlight was the sea urchin, which was creamy, each bite like a taste of the ocean. The portion was generous enough for us to share.I then moved onto the signature dish of the black cod Saikyo Yaki. The name of the dish comes from the Saikyo marinade of Kyoto – a sweet white miso. The fish was grilled to perfection with a sweet and crispy caramelisation and buttery flesh. My partner’s tempura was very good. The fish and prawns were fresh with a light and crunchy batter. They were a bit on the greasy side compared to the top tempura in town, but, all in all, the food was excellent and the price extremely reasonable – around HKD 400 (£35) for two of us. Were it not for cramped space, it would surely be a first-rate lunch location. We passed our opinion to a member of the friendly staff on the way out, and she was quick enough to apologise. Apparently, she said, it would be more spacious during dinner service, when reservations were available.
Clearly this was going to merit a second visit to investigate.