Asia's middle class is embracing the weekend feast that combines breakfast and lunch, accompanied by an opulent sideshow of Champagne and cocktails, writes Andrew Sun
Is it the Champagne? Or is it the brunch? Whatever the attraction, the weekend amalgam of morning and afternoon meals is a perennial favourite for family and friends to gather and waste a whole afternoon in the best possible way.
These days, this leisurely indulgence is no longer confined to hotel lounge cafes. Many enterprising restaurateurs have come up with their own offerings for a slice of the weekend brunch pie. The word "brunch" first entered our lexicon in an 1895 Hunter's Weekly article lauding the concept as a welcome alternative to the heavy meals previously eaten after exhausting English morning hunts or long-winded Sunday church services.
Hotels first latched on to the gimmick because restaurants were closed on Sundays. After the second world war, restaurants fought back by adding cocktails, such as bellinis and mimosas or straight-up Champagne, to the decadent spread. Since then, Sundays have become lazier than ever.
The routine is now particularly popular across Asia, as its burgeoning middle class has discovered the charms of brunch. "I think it's even more popular in Asia and the Middle East," says Imran Khaleel, Zuma restaurant's new deputy general manager, who only arrived in Hong Kong three months ago.
"The Champagne brunch isn't as common now in the US, UK and Europe. The spending is not as much there, so to put on the kind of buffet we have here at Zuma, you really couldn't do it. More people just go out for pancakes and waffles in the US."
Zuma, the stylish Japanese eatery in the Landmark, has been serving its popular Sunday brunch since 2008 to a sophisticated Central clientele who clearly don't mind an all-Japanese izakaya meal. A three-week advance reservation is required for the feast, which costs HK$490, or HK$590 with free-flow Veuve Clicquot Champagne, sake and a wide range of cocktails.
"About 85 per cent of the people choose the drinks option," Khaleel says. "Some people will initially say, 'no, I don't want to drink', but 15 minutes later they'll change their mind."
Another favourite location is Aqua at One Peking Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, with its panoramic skyline vista. The Infinity Brunch, with unlimited Italian and Japanese dishes, is HK$590 (HK$390 without the bubbly, wine or cocktails).
"Brunch is today a status symbol," manager Olimpio Giovanelli suggests. "Champagne reinforces the concept of the exclusivity of weekend brunches. Also, by eliminating the need to get up early on a Saturday or Sunday, brunch has made life that little bit easier for those who also like to stay out late partying the night before."
The Aqua Group has created several posh brunch concepts to challenge the five-star hotels. Vivo's new summer brunch is bluntly entitled Champagne Weekends, while Armani/Prive's White Saturdays (HK$420) give the weekend brunch a club vibe with drinks, food and a DJ. It goes from noon until 7pm.
"Hong Kong is a work hard and play hard kind of town," general manager Max Rhodes notes. "[The brunch] has only been going a few months, but the concept has changed and evolved. In the beginning, we had a buffet section followed by rolling canapés, finger and bowl food. The latter proved so popular that we took the buffet away and just continued the concept of continually taking the food to the guests until they want no more. This came from people enjoying the party atmosphere so much that they didn't want to get up from their tables, leaving their friends to go to a buffet.
"We knew the White Saturdays concept was right on the first day when our first table of three walked in and ordered a one-litre bottle of gin at 12.30pm in the afternoon. That same table left at 1am the following morning, having been visited by many friends throughout the course of the day and night."
Normally, you don't think of Spanish cuisine as brunch fare, but a surprising new entry in the Sunday morning sweepstakes is Catalunya, serving a range of Segovian dishes (for HK$590) with unlimited cava and signature sangria cocktails (for an added HK$230). For brand-name Champagne extravagance, they recently added a new Krug Grande Cuvée option (for a whopping extra HK$1,388).
Restaurant manager Pep Miró admits that brunch is a relatively new concept to Spaniards. "It's only recently started to become more popular, especially in the hotels.
"We tend to have more families at brunch, as we have a playroom [only for brunch]. However, a lot of our regular dinner guests also come to brunch, as we serve lots of dishes they can't get at dinner and we have different dishes every Sunday."
As the brunch market intensifies, it's now the hotels' turn to get creative to lure customers back. The most novel new idea is W Hong Kong's Alice in Wonderland brunch at Kitchen. Inspired by the Lewis Carroll classic, it's a fantastic Sunday feast reimagining scenes from the book. The HK$638 (or HK$748 with free-flowing Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label) offering includes the Mad Hatter's Drink Party and a chocolate Caterpillar Corner.
Over at the Langham Place Hotel, assistant general manager Elaine Joe did some demographic research and introduced a weekend brunch at their Japanese restaurant Tokoro, giving customers a different variation from the Western continental feast (HK$558 with a bottle of Champagne, HK$398 without).
"I think Japanese food is an almost guaranteed sell," Joe says. "If you provide quality, Japanese cuisine will never fail. In Hong Kong, lots of people go for a weekend brunch, so we thought to try it at Tokoro.
"We noticed the booking pattern is for three to four people, and they want things to share. These were the key words in our research - families, social gatherings, groups. So, we thought in bustling Mongkok we give people a relaxed, happy place to catch up."
Although the fresh and generous brunch is the primary appeal, Joe realised a little hint goes a long way in convincing patrons to top it up with bubbly.
"We started putting a Champagne glass in the place settings. People are tempted by it and decide, 'why not'. We launched this brunch as a promotion until September, but the response has been very good. It's totally full two to three weeks in advance. Very likely we'll extend the brunch to the long-term."