Only in Hong Kong. First here was the brand new Tosca restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton, a conscious nod to the much-loved Toscana at the old Ritz-Carlton, but a very different restaurant (for the review, click here).
Then a few days dining later, I’m at Hugo’s at the Hyatt Regency Hong Kong, Tsim Sha Tsui. First opened in 1969 in the first Hyatt in Asia, Hugo’s hasn’t quite had an uninterrupted tenure. The original Hyatt shut down on 31 December 2005, and so Hugo’s had to wait for this new Hyatt Regency to open in October 2009. Even with that gap, it’s an impressive heritage. What’s funny is that the heritage is laid on top of a whole lot of fictional history. The name comes from a purely imaginary Bavarian host and namesake Hugo Ludwig Wilhelm von Gluckstein, and it’s supposedly Hugo’s metal suit of armour that greets you inside the original heavy pine doors of the restaurant. If you tried launching a restaurant with such a conceit these days, you wouldn’t last five minutes, but forty years plus heritage seems to have buried the absurdity of it all under fond memories - and it seems many have fond memories of this place, from childhood, from special occasions, or perhaps just because it was such a strange restaurant forty years ago that, as a child, if you ever had a meal there you were unlikely to ever forget the experience.
In part, that would have been because of the striking decoration and staging of the meal. The original Hugo’s was apparently even darker than this restaurant, but it is hardly light now, even though the ceilings are apparently much higher. There are ornate mirrors, chandeliers, genuine Ming vases, guns, shield plaques and burnished gold leaf. It’s not a Miss Havisham atmosphere however, because every few minutes there are flames from one of the trolleys as lobster bisque or prawns flambé are prepared tableside. The history continues here as traditional serving apparatus is employed, including four remodelled and serviced walnut wood and silver-plated Christofle trolleys from the 1960s, two rotating hors d’oeuvres trolleys, one beef wagon and one cheese/dessert trolley. There are also eight gueridon trolleys (round tables from which food is served).
In these times of restaurant “brands” being rolled out internationally, it’s lovely to find oneself sitting in a very good restaurant that no one in their right mind would try and replicate. Classic European cuisine with a Bavarian twist, served at your table by staff almost as long-serving as the trolleys, and a marble-topped open kitchen with four stone-hearth Beech ovens in sight for entertainment. And of course in London, they are just rediscovering classic dishes, having got carried away with Asian cuisine for the last ten years. The obsession with provenance (not just where the pork came from, but which farm, what it was fed, how old, etc...) has now had history added into the mix. Heston Blumenthal’s fabulously successful restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental London has dishes reimagined from 14-18th century cookbooks (including The Forme Of Cury from 1390, which was the first cookbook in English), while Marcus Wareing is about to open The Gilbert Scott restaurant in the Renaissance St Pancras Grand and is promising cooking “inspired by the likes of Isabelle Beeton, Agnes Marshall, Florence White and John Nott,” Heard of all of them? Me neither.
So what of the food at Hugo’s? Much of it is prepared right by the table, from the Caesar Salad to the Steak Tartare, and even when it’s been cooked in the kitchen (steak, obviously), the sauces come out with a flourish. What’s important is that the staff are excellent, confident and very engaging, and the dishes are really very good, even if, let’s face it, there’s nothing terribly difficult about a decent restaurant preparing some Crêpe Suzette. The wine list ranges from the breathtakingly expensive to the fairly reasonable, with a list of some 160 wines from 50 regions, and focuses apparently on organic, biodynamic and value-for-money wines from small producers. We finished Asian-style with a selection of desserts and crepes, of course, but also Bombe Alaska (like Baked Alaska, except on fire), crème brûlée and Cafe Diablo, as well as those famous ice cream-filled chocolate spheres, served from a bowl of dry ice. You could have a light meal here, but you’d be missing out. Clearly Hugo’s will be remembered for years to come by a new generation of children being taken out by their parents for a special occasion. By the time they grow up, the history of Hugo’s will be even more convoluted.
For more information, visit www.hongkong.tsimshatsui.hyatt.com