At the mention of tapas, I think of gentle Mediterranean breezes, starry skies and plates of sizzling garlic prawns, spicy chorizo, stuffed peppers and a Spanish omelet washed down with plenty of vino tinto.
Three new Spanish restaurants, 22 Ships, Boqueria and Vi Cool, forced me to completely rethink my idea of tapas in a city as dense and vertical as Hong Kong.
I abandoned thoughts of open-air eating as we rode the elevator to the seventh floor of LKF Tower and got off at Boqueria, the Hong Kong franchise of the New York-based chain.
We were the first to arrive at 6:30 p.m. on a Saturday. The soft overhead lighting, candles and high stools and open kitchen created a cozy ambiance.
The sangria was just right, neither too sweet nor overly spicy. The waiter thoughtfully brought us tiny spoons so we could scoop out the diced fruit.
We started with txipirones, a delicious dish of tender baby squid served in a romesco vinaigrette, tomato confit and crispy scallions. We wouldn’t let the waiter remove the plate until we’d mopped up every drop of the sauce with bread.
Next we devoured a plate of Gambas, piping hot shrimp in a garlic sauce. Calls for more bread and more mopping.
The bombas, a potato croquet filled with minced wagyu beef with a hint of herbs was exemplary. The tortilla, however, was wanting.
The pina inopia, slices of fresh pineapple served with molasses and fresh limes was simple yet sublime. The bill, including tip, came to HK$1,250 ($161).
Two days later we arrived at 22 Ships around 8:15 pm. It doesn’t take reservations, yet the 45-minute wait passed quickly as we were able to consume drinks (delicious sangria with a healthy froth that made it look like a cocktail) and snacks standing at a small counter just inside the door. Our excellent appetizer of peas, broad beans, goats curd and tender Iberico ham reminded me of the green pea risotto I ate at Gordon Ramsay’s now-closed Maze restaurant in Prague.
No coincidence there. Jason Atherton, the culinary director and part-owner of 22 Ships, created Maze for Ramsay before leaving to open London’s Pollen Street Social, a restaurant that scored him a Michelin star.
22 Ships seats only 35 people, most of them squeezed around the bar, creating just the right amount of buzz. We got coveted spots at a counter opening onto the street, which is surprisingly quiet for the neighborhood.
Our first dish was fried egg with black pudding, capers and anchovy whose description belied the dish’s lightness. But then again, I’m a sucker for anything with anchovies.
Next came scallop ceviche with yuzu dressing, soy, cucumber and apple. My friend moaned in appreciation.
We weren’t as enamored of the salt and pepper squid with ink aioli, but only because our expectations had been raised so high by everything we’d tried so far.
They’d run out of the signature dish, char-broiled Iberico pork and foie gras burgers, so we opted for roasted lamb cutlets. The meat was thick and tender and perfectly cooked. One apiece was enough to satisfy our carnivorous cravings.
The goat’s cheese sorbet was delicious, though my date said the peanut ice cream with mixed berries tasted even better during a previous visit.
The bill, without the standard 10 percent service charge in Hong Kong, came to HK$1,058.
The third leg of our tapas trifecta took us to Vi Cool, requiring us to navigate the endless corridors of Harbour City mall in Tsim Sha Tsui.
It’s an odd choice of location for this first Hong Kong venue by Spaniard Sergi Arola, whose Gastro restaurant in Madrid has two Michelin stars.
He’s unlikely to repeat that success here.
Apart from the good service and one truly excellent dish of sea bass, mango and avocado ceviche, our meal was just so-so.
The king prawns fried with garlic were too oily, and we actually left one (of six) on the plate uneaten. The Catalan sausage pizza with ratatouille, grilled leaks, endive leaves and buffalo mozzarella was disappointing and the balsamic vinegar overpowered the fire-smoked eggplant dish.
The dessert of ricotta and berries was about 80 percent cheese and 20 percent fruit, portions that should have been reversed. We left more than half the dish unfinished. Total cost with service came to HK$938.
22 Ships is on 22 Ship Street, Wan Chai. Information: http://www.22ships.hk/ or +852 2555 0722.
Boqueria is on the 7th Floor of LKF Tower, 33 Wyndham Street, Central. Information: http://www.boqueria.com.hk/ or +852 2321 8681
Vi Cool is at Level 2, Shop 2101-2, Gateway Arcade, Harbour City, Canton Rd., Tsim Sha Tsui. Information: www.diningconcepts.com.hk/vi_cool/ or +852 2735 7787
The Bloomberg Questions
Average cost per person for shared dishes and a couple of drinks? Vi Cool: HK$500. 22 Ships: HK$600. Boqueria: HK$625.
Sound level? Just the right amount of noise at 22 Ships, quieter at Boqueria, tomb-like at Vi Cool on a Sunday night.
Inside tip? Avoid weekends at 22 Ships.
Will I be back? Ships 22: Often. Boqueria: Yes, when I’m really hungry. Vi Cool: Unlikely.
Date place? Boqueria: Yes. 22 Ships: Definitely, the small space forces you into close contact. Vi Cool: Only if it’s part of a shopping date.
Rating: 22 Ships: ***, Boqueria ***, Vi Cool *1/2.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Muse highlights include: Mark Beech on CDs and Ryan Sutton on restaurants.