Stodgy school dinners fed a hunger for new flavours
Architect and interior designer Joyce Wang - the creative force behind two of the city's renowned restaurants, Asia Society's Ammo Cafe and The Drawing Room at J Plus Boutique Hotel - is as passionate about the dishes they serve as the restaurants she designs around them. Originally from Hong Kong, Wang has also lived, studied, worked and eaten her way around Los Angeles, New York, Shanghai and, her favourite city, London.
How did London, which until recently had a bad reputation when it comes to food, become one of your favourite cities?
I got into food when I started boarding school in Britain because the food there was so stodgy. On weekends and breaks, we'd leave for London, where we had our pick of different restaurants. We were really into Asian cuisine as there wasn't much Chinese food at school, and London has such an amazing Chinese community. We used to go to the Four Seasons in Chinatown, which is still around and a bit of an institution, and I really like Hakkasan and Yauatcha.
How is the Asian food in Los Angeles?
It has everything, within just about every community. There's Little Tokyo, Koreatown Filipinotown, Thai Town. But it's also got a Jewish quarter with really good pastrami sandwiches. Downtown, there's Langer's Delicatessen, where you can get the world's best pastrami sandwich. It's in a really sketchy neighbourhood, and you're kind of risking your life to go there. You have to go in daylight.
That's courageous for a sandwich. Are you brave with ingredients too?
I'm actually not very adventurous. Of course, you're more willing to try something new when it looks tasty, and I think great restaurants are the ones that extend your palate. One of my favourites is St John Bar and Restaurant in Smithfield, London. They specialise in nose-to-tail eating, meaning they'll serve you any bit of the animal, like ox tongue, innards and offal, so you have to be adventurous. Sometimes, it's less about the food and more about the environment. Aprazivel, in Santa Teresa overlooking Rio de Janeiro, is a restaurant you have to climb over a stone wall and walk along the ridge of a hill to get to. It's made up of tree houses. I had wanted to find something really different for my husband's birthday, and the ambience and al fresco dining were amazing. I think al fresco dining is something Hong Kong could really have more of.
What else do you think is lacking in Hong Kong?
The authentic Mexican food at Brickhouse in Lan Kwai Fong filled a hole for me. Real Mexican food is more about the ingredients: the cheese, the quality of the taco, having the right salsa and jalapenos and fresh guacamole, while in Tex-Mex restaurants things just become oversized. I think Hong Kong is already doing great, but there are so many more things it could do, like an eastern European coffee shop.
How do you think Hong Kong's service compares with that of other cities?
In Los Angeles and New York, staff are encouraged to communicate with the customers more. I actually think the service in Hong Kong is really good, but there's a sense of formality that sometimes isn't necessary. In general, staff here are super hard-working and professional, but not as open. You want to go back to that neighbourhood and have them recognise you. For Hong Kong that's almost unheard of. But Yardbird has a really good core team, and it seems the staff love working there, which creates a great atmosphere.
People hang out in hotel restaurants a lot more in Asia.
I've been interested in hotel restaurants for a while, and there are a couple of places that do them really well. The Ace Hotel in New York has The Breslin Bar and Dining Room. That has a casual feel. The Hoxton in London attracts creative people and has a cool vibe, so that the restaurant becomes the soul of the hotel. Having a ground-floor restaurant you can walk past, see friends in, and stop by for a drink reduces the formality.