Not a herringbone in sight

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 September, 2011, 12:00am


Food and fashion make a curious pairing. Fashion folk are notorious for not having the biggest of appetites, and some designers won't even make clothes above a certain size. Still, culinary-couture collaborations have cropped up all over town.

The latest is Armani teaming up with restaurant group Aqua to open a new restaurant, lounge and rooftop bar in Central: Armani/Aqua and Armani/Priv?, in honour of the designer's couture collection. With a soft opening last week, it's the first time Armani has 'co-branded' a venture and a smart move on fashion house's part to join forces with a highly successful Hong Kong restaurateur.

'I've loved the Armani label since I was a teenager,' says Aqua co-founder David Yeo. Musings of a collaboration go back to late 2003, when Giorgio Armani visited Hong Kong for the flagship store opening in Chater House. He and his entourage wined and dined at the just-opened Aqua and the Hutong, and were clearly impressed. But it's taken until now for the project to come to fruition.

So how does the union work? Yeo is adept at blending East and West in interior design; here he's kept to an elegant minimalism and modern oriental using Armani signature shades of beige, black and red. But the menu presented more of an issue. 'Mr Armani was very keen for the food to be authentic Italian,' Yeo says. 'We said fantastic, but knowing Hong Kong, there is a great demand for any cuisine that uses chopsticks - especially in the evening.'

The solution was two kitchens and two chefs. One serving Italian cuisine and one Japanese. Diners are presented with just one menu - reading Italian cuisine from the front and Japanese from the back.

'We didn't want to do fusion,' Yeo says. 'We wanted to be respectful of each cuisine. And I think the two have a lot in common: they both have great emphasis on using the best produce, keeping things simple, and presentation is important.'

Certainly, the food presentation at Armani/Aqua is exquisite - the sushi and sashimi platter is particularly artful - and the ingredients top notch. 'We have always been very careful about sourcing our ingredients, but we became even more obsessive,' Yeo says. Alternative Japanese ingredients have been tracked down in Australia, Canada and Spain; the burrata cheese is flown in from Italy.

Yeo will not be drawn into which of the two cuisines is more popular. 'They are equal - with the exception of desserts,' he says. 'There, the Italian menu wins hands down.'

Pastas average HK$250 a dish, while the sushi and sashimi at Aqua range from HK$248 to HK$1,588.

Aqua already operates several Japanese and Italian restaurants, notably neighbouring Aqua Tokyo and Aqua Rome in fashionable One Peking Road. Italian head chef Ernesto Tonetto has been brought back to Hong Kong from Milan, Italy, having previously worked in the territory. 'I've waited years to work with him,' Yeo says.

When I tasted Tonetto's herb-flavoured tortelli with ricotta and tomato, I knew why.

Perhaps the food and fashion partnership is not so surprising, after all. Designers have fed us a lifestyle - with clothing, fragrances and houseware, so why not food, too? Yeo likens a key component of the Armani/Aqua interior to fashion - the walls change colour from neutral for lunch to red for dinner like 'day wear to evening wear.' But that's where the analogy ends. Yeo believes the Armani/Aqua customer does not come to be part of a fashion brand. 'It's the total reverse. The emphasis is very much on the foodie side. The very soul of Aqua is food and drink. It's not just about a nice environment; that's just the start.'

Reinforcing his point, the staff uniforms are not designed by Armani. And the entrances of the shops and the restaurants are separate.

Dunhill, on the other hand, opened its British restaurant, Alfie's by Kee (the Hong Kong members' club), as part of a whole lifestyle package with the Dunhill shopper in mind.

'Combining a restaurant with a retail environment was specifically designed for our customers,' says Jason Beckley, Dunhill's global marketing director. 'It is not just about a restaurant; it is about custom tailoring, fine wine, a place to meet friends as well as to buy luxurious products.' The formula has worked in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo and London, and Alfie's will open new stores with restaurants in Beijing and Dubai later this year.

Agn?s b. takes both approaches. The French designer is expanding her empire of restaurants in Hong Kong, with recent additions in Causeway Bay and Hollywood Road and two others set to open in Lee Gardens and the airport's Terminal One. The restaurants (Le Pain Grill?) and cafes, which serve resolutely French fare, are either housed in Agn?s b clothing stores or stand-alone.

But why did a French designer want a raft of restaurants in Hong Kong? Christophe Vrignaud, Agnes b.'s head of operations, food and beverage, says: 'It's because the brand is very much loved here and Agn?s loves food, cooking and drinking [she and her sister own vineyards], and she loves sharing.'