Welcome to the bile high club
Stocks in Hong Kong may be sliding, but the price of a dinner is rocketing. The humble burger is a luxury object at The Main St Deli in the Langham Hotel, where a half-wagyu beef, half-Iberico pork burger is on sale for HK$1,188, served with fries, chilli and a milkshake.
At Michelin-star Cepage, in Wan Chai, a salad of lobster and summer flowers goes for HK$320, and a langoustine dim sum starter is HK$480. Two-Michelin-star Amber, the restaurant crowning the Landmark Mandarin Oriental, offers a bespoke menu and meet-the-chef experience for HK$6,000 - plus 10 per cent service charge.
But that's nothing compared with some meal-with-room stays. The Four Seasons' two-night All About You package costs HK$19,888. Among the special deals in the package is the chance for unlimited feasting at The Lounge, the hotel's all-day dining room, although caviar is excluded from the deal.
At Cafe Grey, the upscale dining room at the Upper House, foodies are invited on a market tour with the chef before enjoying a meal made from the ingredients bought on that tour. The two-night Wet Market Culinary Journey is also priced at HK$19,888.
Shaky world economies have not affected these pricey offers. Richard Ekkebus, chef and culinary operations director at Amber, says: 'It doesn't matter if the stock market is up or down; there will always be people who want to splash out.'
Amid the 2008 financial crisis, a guest of his requested a kilo of Beluga caviar for one dinner, Ekkebus recalls. This week, a special sauce was couriered from London, so the restaurant could replicate a guest's favourite Bloody Mary - until now, available only at the Mandarin Oriental in London - which will be served at a dinner party.
Hong Kong's prices are on a par with New York's, but don't yet compete with those of Paris, Tokyo or even Singapore - where an eight-course tasting menu at Restaurant Andr? costs almost US$300 - says Bridget Chen, a Hong Kong restaurateur who runs JAR (Just-a-Restaurant) in Central and the 798 Unit & Co bistros. And for the mega-rich, prices are but a number. 'When you're spending HK$60,000 on a handbag, what's HK$6,000 for dinner?' asks Chen.
That list of the wealthy keeps growing. The latest Hurun report, which records China's richest, says more than 7,500 mainlanders have assets of more than one billion yuan (HK$1.2 billion). Last year, mainland arrivals to Hong Kong were up to 22.7 million.
Property firm CB Richard Ellis puts Hong Kong among the top three global banking destinations (according to the views of a large sample of finance professionals), behind New York and London.
'Entertaining clients and celebrating success is a big part of the banking culture, and it is reflected in the number of high-end and Michelin-star restaurants in the city,' says Emma Sherrard Matthew, CEO of luxury concierge Quintessentially.
Hongkongers have never been shy to spend on big banquets with ingredients such as shark's fin and abalone. A new breed of mature diner is emerging, says Kee Foong, editor of the Luxe City Guides. Extensive travel, celebrity chefs, lists such as 'The World's 50 Best Restaurants', and growth of the Michelin guides has boosted international dining, he says. 'Food has reached a new level of consciousness. It becomes an event in itself, and spending for it, therefore, is at a new level, as well,' Foong says.
The Krug Room at the Mandarin Oriental has a special cache in the 'most exclusive' category. Diners can feast on up to 14 courses in this private kitchen for up to HK$3,188 per head.
Last winter, famous American chef Thomas Keller made his first Hong Kong appearance for a series of events at the hotel. Despite a HK$6,477 price tag, the event not only sold out but had a waiting list.
More celebrities have followed. In August this year, a month after his world-famous El Bulli restaurant closed, Spanish molecular chef Ferran Adria arrived in town. An 11-course dinner, cooked not by Adria but by his prot?g?, Paco Roncero, and served at the Ritz-Carlton, cost HK$4,800.
But can even a top chef do in Hong Kong what they are famous for at home? Some say no, and that may be why Adria never cooks away from El Bulli, says Chen, the restaurateur. The Mandarin Oriental flew in all of Keller's hand-chosen ingredients, enabling a closer experience of what guests would eat if they went to his restaurants in the US.
Hongkonger Roy Lee has eaten at Keller's French Laundry restaurant in the Napa Valley, but raced to get a place at the Hong Kong event. He is a Keller fan after meeting the chef at a food festival overseas a few years ago.
'Food-wise, it was not as good as our experience in Napa; that was out of this world. But in Hong Kong the experience was very good. Thomas Keller came out, and you could talk to him, interact ... I didn't regret it, put it that way.'
Lee, 43, is no stranger to splurging on food and blogs about his bon vivant experiences at birdiegolfblog.com. Lee favours looking at chefs behind the scenes, their philosophies, personalities and humour. The most he spent on a one-night event was about HK$9,000 per person on a horizontal tasting menu of 1996 Burgundy wines at the Grand Hyatt hotel. As 1996 was the year he married, he took his wife to celebrate. Wine dinners can be pricey, says Lee. Wine selection, food menu, location, company and prestigious speakers are all factors that persuade Lee to open his wallet.
'Otherwise, I'll just think about buying a decent bottle of the wine instead,' he says.
He also turned down a HK$35,000 dinner at El Bulli in Spain because his wife is not a fan of molecular food. 'It's about the whole experience, not just the food,' offers Lee, who works at a golf driving range. 'And it doesn't always have to be expensive to be good.'