Hong Kong bar reviews

Mixology king Antonio Lai’s new Hong Kong speakeasy, Room 309 serves invisible drinks in a hidden room

A key card gets you into a dimly lit retro looking bar, where transparent cocktails can be ordered from an invisible menu. However, the staff are young and inexperienced and some of the drinks could be larger

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 September, 2018, 1:16pm
UPDATED : Monday, 17 September, 2018, 1:16pm

The vibe: Room 309 is a new speakeasy-style bar in the boutique Pottinger Hotel, and is run by one of the city’s best-known mixologists, Antonio Lai. They’ve taken the speakeasy concept seriously – to get in, you need to ask for a key card at Lai’s other third-floor bar, The Envoy, and use it as you would for a normal room.

An intimate, dimly lit interior seats around 20 – there’s a long bar with barstools plus a couple of high bar tables, music (too loud for a place where people sit and chat) that is firmly retro, and despite the small scale of the venue, they don’t take reservations.

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It’s all cleverly done, yet feels a bit contrived and while the young, local staff are eager to please, they lack experience – there isn’t the organic feel which makes the best bars in this genre special.

The drinks: the bar’s main gimmick is the new trend for “invisible” drinks which here are even presented on an “invisible” menu (you have to hold a transparent panel against a dark surface to read the list). Currently all the rage in Japan, the invisibility consists of processing ingredients such as whisky or fruit juice to remove the colour, so drinks are clear and transparent.

According to our bartender, taking away the colour is supposed to make you focus more on the taste and “surprise” you. The concept is a bit of a head scratcher: if you’ve ordered whisky you’re not going to be surprised if that’s what your drink tastes of and, as with wine, the colour of cocktails adds an element of visual pleasure which here is missing.

We tried two of the invisible signatures. The Vanishing Watermelon Martini (HK$128, Absolut Elyx vodka, centrifuged watermelon juice, Cointreau, simple syrup, basil tincture, sea salt foam) was pleasant at first, but became cloying towards the end despite the salt, and the Cointreau wasn’t detectable. The best thing about it was the garnish of freeze-dried watermelon (the bar has its own freeze drier).

Where’s My Whisky Sour? (HK$138, bourbon redistillation, clarified peach tea cordial, aromatic bitters, freeze-dried peach) was delicious, with the delicate flavour of peach complementing the whisky nicely. On the downside, the serving (disguised by a small glass and large chunk of ice) was far from generous, something the bartender might have taken into account before saying “You do drink fast” – if there’d been more of it to drink, it would have lasted longer…

The bar also offers a list of speakeasy-era classics, with descriptions linking them (if sometimes tenuously) to vintage films. The Whiskey Smash (HK$148, Michter’s No. 1 Bourbon, simple syrup, lemon juice, fresh mint), a citrus take on the Mint Julep, was excellent although this serving too would have had Garbo saying “don’t be stingy, baby”. Between the Sheets (HK$128, Martell VSOP, three-year-old Havana rum, Cointreau, lemon juice) was well made and – hooray! – a proper glassful. The Champagne Cocktail (HK$158, Martell VSOP, champagne, Angostura bitters, sugar lump) was let down by the champagne not being sufficiently chilled.

The verdict: while there’s room for improvement in terms of atmosphere and attention to detail, the “invisible” and speakeasy gimmicks, Lai’s mixology and the boutique hotel location should assure Room 309’s success.

Room 309, Room 309, 3/F, The Pottinger Hong Kong, 74 Queen’s Road Central (entrance on Stanley Street), Central

Open: Monday to Thursday 5pm-1am, Friday and Saturday 5pm to 2am