The city's lack of good bread is a frequent topic of conversation among Hong Kong foodies. Not even fine dining establishments can guarantee a good roll. Simply finding a decent baguette to go with your home-cooked feast can be a chore. Those who appreciate a freshly baked loaf say they've had little choice when choosing their daily bread.
But after decades of disappointment, a change is finally afoot in the world of bread - one that could have been here all along.
It's known as "artisanal bread" - high-quality local and imported ingredients baked every morning. Bakeries such as Levain Bakery in Central, Tufei Painpain and Po's Atelier in Sheung Wan, and Maia's Box in Mong Kok are touting the trend. But while the "artisan" name might be new to Hong Kong, its moniker in its European hometowns is a little simpler: "bread".
"This idea of 'artisanal' bread has been around for hundreds of years - it's just never had that term before in Hong Kong," says Latif Dilworth, bread aficionado and front-of-house operations manager at Relish Kitchen caterers.
"Look at supermarket bread labelling - rather than being called rye or wholewheat, it says 'Western bread'. But now there's an exposure to something better and more desirable, along with our falling in love with all things French and more importantly, Japanese."
Indeed, like many trends in Hong Kong, the impetus and influence of this latest obsession is distinctly Japanese. "Hong Kong often plays catch-up to Japan, which has had amazing bread for decades now," says long-time bread enthusiast John Ma.
The starting point in Hong Kong for the now widespread trend was arguably the first baker to label itself artisan: Levain Bakery. It opened two years ago in Jordan, but found success after moving to Aberdeen Street in Central. Owner Li Kwok-cheung was inspired by his father baking bread at home, and saw a niche for European-style bakeries.
"The trend started in Japan, but Hong Kong people now want a higher quality of life, which leads them to look for high quality bread," says Li. "The rent in the city is skyrocketing, but we had to be on Hong Kong Island where Westerners live and work. We also had to keep the quality of our product high, which differentiates us from other bakeries in Hong Kong."
Levain quickly took off, offering customers a mix of influences: the French and Japanese that started the trend, but also a slice of Hong Kong with its use of ingredients, such as green tea, red bean and pineapple. Soon enough, other bakeries started labelling themselves as artisans.
Vincent Cheng, co-owner of Po's Atelier had worked in advertising for almost five years before feeling the need to try something different. Teaming up with business partner Jonathan Leijonhufvud, they brainstormed ideas that would get them out of the office: a guest house, a ping-pong bar, a pub. Inspiration came on a visit to Europe.
"Now everyone loves high-quality bread - they're willing to pay more. That's why we opened Po's Atelier - there's still a gap, and this is where we want to satisfy it."
The bakery opened last August near Hollywood Road in Sheung Wan. It borrows inspiration from its neighbours: a hip sense of design from the new generation of chic restaurants, and the use of local ingredients such as oolong tea and soya milk from Levain. As Cheng says, bakers are trying to fill that gap - but whether they can live up to their promises and whether people are willing to pay the extra cost is another matter.
"There are obviously people out there who appreciate good quality bread, but people are paying more because it's a rarity right now," says Ma. "A loaf of country-style pain de campagne in Paris costs about €2 (HK$20), but here it's HK$75 - I can't bring myself to pay that every few days. It's just bread. Hopefully, prices will come down to realistic levels."
Ma still buys his daily loaves from Hong Kong's many chains of Japanese bakeries such as Little Mermaid and Donq. They've been in our city for years and sell affordable bread in lighter varieties. "I've tried the new artisanal bakeries around Hong Kong, but I find the bread a tad too heavy - I stick to Little Mermaid for croissants and Donq for baguettes," he says.
Dilworth also finds the bread the new artisanal bakeries serve too dense and says he prefers the offerings in his Australian home. In Hong Kong, he normally buys bread from older stalwarts that people often forget about, but could easily be labelled as artisanal. "I normally buy bread from the Mandarin Oriental, Classified or Joel Robuchon - they're just as good, if not better, and are easily more affordable and less pretentious."
As such, it's hard to say where the idea of artisanal bread will end up. The artisanal trend may be as short-lived as many other food trends in Hong Kong.
"Rent is obviously a major issue for independent owners, as is our awful tap water quality, which might explain the independent bakeries' pricing," says Ma. "But people's taste buds are getting better - good wine, cheese and cured meats spread throughout Hong Kong a few years ago, and the price has fallen for each of them. Let's hope the same happens to these artisan bakers."
Dilworth agrees and gives us the long view: "Bread has been the staple food for cultures and civilisations over centuries - with so many varieties and personal tastes, it'll always be a subjective thing," says Dilworth. "But in Hong Kong, as long as Western influences intertwine with local culture as they have done for so long, the new artisans should be here to stay as long as there is room to grow."