The Square is in the Exchange Square Building in Central, the financial hub of the city. It’s an upscale Cantonese restaurant and part of the Maxim Group, which consists of hundreds of outlets all over Hong Kong, from Michelin starred restaurants to casual bakeries. The group has been a staple in the Hong Kong food business for decades, and its success lies in its ability to cater for all kinds of demand with consistent quality across the board.
Having held a Michelin star for seven or eight years, The Square lost it this year. The head chef has since left and the menu has seen a slight change. However, it still consistently delivers great food in an elegant dining hall overlooking the lobby of the impressive building. with courteous but not too intrusive service. The restaurant is on the mezzanine level of the commercial building and the clientèle are mostly city types or well-heeled families. The décor is simple and elegant, and despite it essentially being a large dining hall, the tables are not set too close together – you’ve got the space for a tranquil meal. There is also a fairly large bar area next to the reception desk, but it is almost always quiet, if not empty, given the number of bars in the area.
The Square is a casual enough venue for meeting up with friends, but tasteful enough for a business banquet. The menu on offer is extensive and is unashamedly traditional. Whilst a lot of modern Cantonese restaurants try to elevate their status by introducing foreign ingredients like truffles and foie gras, I am a bit of a traditionalist, so this is a massive turn-off. It is like having caviar on your fish and chips – and you get charged a fortune. It adds little to the dish, and is merely a distraction from what is often just substandard cooking. The Square has fortunately resisted the temptation and stays true to the roots of traditional Cantonese cooking, and, despite the prestigious location and all the accolades, its reasonable pricing is a pleasant surprise.
The dim sum menu at lunch is standard. The deep-fried prawn roll wrapped in bean curd, served with a sort of prawn bisque dip, is the highlight. Otherwise, the other dishes are solid if not spectacular. The dinner menu, however, is a heaven for all Cantonese food enthusiasts. The menu is over ten pages and it is interesting to note that quite a few items are served individually, which is unusual given the sharing concept of Chinese food. I would assume it is to cater for more formal business dinners playing by Western etiquette rules.
The menu is diverse, with traditional kung fu dishes – rare, even in Hong Kong – alongside more familiar fare like you would find in your local Chinese. “Kung fu” literally translates as “skills and labour”, and often refers to dishes which require a lot of preparation. Unfortunately, they are increasingly rare; two examples The Square’s menu offer are chicken stuffed with minced prawns, and poached chicken in stock, served with Yunnan ham and dried shiitake mushrooms.
The former requires a day of hanging the chicken to ensure it is dry enough to give it a crispy skin when deep-fried. It is then deboned and a prawn mince is stuffed between the skin and the flesh. Every piece is a wonderfully well-balanced combination of crispiness, succulent meat and fresh prawns. The latter is a whole chicken poached in chicken stock then deboned and served with sliced Yunnan ham (a Chinese equivalent to prosciutto) and sliced dried shiitake mushroom served in a thickened broth. The combination of flavours makes it the pinnacle of traditional Cantonese haute cuisine.
Other highlights include the salt and pepper spare ribs (impossibly succulent, and crisp on the outside) and the deep friend prawns served with a tangerine sauce, which cuts through the heaviness of the batter. The soup section is also impressive with the seafood and tofu soup the highlight; and the siu-mei – Cantonese barbecued meat – is also fantastic.
Of course, the above highlights are only a tiny glimpse into a long list of mouth-watering dishes. There are plenty of more “high-end” Cantonese restaurants nearby, but what makes The Square stand out is the consistent quality across such a wide variety of truly traditional cuisine, and at a very wallet-friendly price.