Tuesday, May 27, 2014

22 Ships

This past weekend I finally went to eat at 22 Ships, a tapas restaurant, in Wan Chai.  I went with two girl friends (who also happen to be coworkers, but I feel like just describing them as coworkers is a little bit misleading).  Working in a small office full of men, the women feel a need to stick together (sometimes).  And these women are really great.  So, yeah, girl friends.

We went to a "secret bar" (really just the adjoining room to Ham & Sherry, the bar across the street from the perpetually crowded 22 Ships) to wait for our number to be called.  The bar was too dark for good pictures to be taken, but I liked the school theme throughout.  The bar had a little yellow school bus perched next to the straws and napkins.  The drinks menu was in a school book labeled "Exercise Book" and was the kind with pictures and dotted lines to guide beginning penmanship.  When the bill came, it came in a report card.  Maybe a little kitschy, but in the dim recesses, with the little stools, and the very cool hidden entrance (nothing to indicate a door but a single light bulb and a rickety shelf perched outside), it all seemed to work.

Dinner, when it finally (finally!) came, was pretty good.  Prices were high considering how small the dishes were, but it is Hong Kong and I was not surprised.  This is also the super swanky area of WanChai now that has changed a lot in recent years, popping up with all kinds of creative concept stores and high end restaurants.  So all in all it was in line with my expectations.  I would say that it is not a restaurant for large parties, due to its tiny space and refusal to accept reservations.  Everyone sits on bar stools and you are more likely to end up sitting next to your party than across or around, so this may be a restaurant best for date night.  It is definitely not a child friendly place!

Because the restaurant made us wait so long (we suspected they gave away our seats to another party first), they offered us complimentary sangria and oysters.  The oysters… were okay.  I could have done without the green foam.  As with sushi, I prefer this kind of seafood unadulterated.  Just give me some shallot vinaigrette and lemon and I am set.

Next came the tomato and buffalo mozzarella with micro greens and a red pepper aioli.  I did not realize there would be red pepper aioli, which kind of soured me on the whole thing.  I can't help it - not sure why but I have never been a fan of red pepper!  Otherwise, this dish was fine - good cheese and fresh tomatoes.
Next came the hamachi (yellowtail) with pickled radish and micro greens.  This dish, I loved.  It was superb.  It had light, crisp, clean flavors balanced with pinpricks of tartness from the radish.  I kind of wanted to lick the plate. The drawback of tapas is that you can't have the whole dish to yourself!
The next dish that came was the salt roasted beetroot with balsamic cream and malt nuggets.  There were pockets of basil aioli in there as well.  This dish was a marvel.  As someone who usually steers clear of cream and avoids beetroot if possible, I was not expecting to like this dish at all.  Thus the complexity of the flavors, the contrast of the lightness of the foam with the slippery softness of the beet and the hard, tough crunch of the nuggets, completely blew me away.  Thanks, 22 Ships, you have caused me to view beetroot and cream in an entirely new light!
 The next dish that came was ham and manchego in a lightly toasted sandwich with two little quail eggs on top.  Neither of my friends were eating the eggs, so I gobbled down both of them!  It is funny to eat quail eggs sunny side up because quail eggs are so small that it really looks and feels like you are eating dollhouse food.  This dish, while truly just a glorified grilled cheese, was very tasty.  The salty ham, the pungent cheese, the creamy yolk from the quail egg… what's not to love?
 The baby squid came next.  Again, with the red pepper aioli!  Doh.  I managed to avoid most of it though, as it was on the bottom.  The little pieces of salami made this dish.  The baby squid was also very tender.  I could not figure out what the black blobs were - I think it was the squid ink.  Very pretty presentation, right?
 The lamb shoulder was next.  It was braised lamb shoulder with cubes of sweet potato.  (Are you noticing, as I was by this point, that micro greens feature prominently at this restaurant?)  This one I could have skipped.  The meat was kind of tough and there was not enough sauce.  Basically it lacked "jus".

Next were the grilled peppers with sea salt and pepper.  I do not think I will ever eat these peppers without thinking of Michael and I huddling over a tiny bowl of these perfectly fried peppers at a bar in Paris, avoiding the rain and trying not to get pushed around too much by boisterous tourists.  As you can see, they did a good job here blistering the skin and getting it to that meltingly soft texture.  Only complaint was that some of the bigger peppers were not sufficiently seared and were still bright green and crisp.  The little peppers are best because they get cooked so thoroughly.
Final dish of the night was the sea bass with grilled artichoke and spring onion, paired with a garlic puree.  This was a great dish to end on as it left a good memory - the artichokes were amazing ( flavorful and tender) and the sea bass was cooked just right (not too raw, but not too tough).  The garlic puree was the perfect touch to a dish that otherwise would have been too light.
 I hated the wait and could have used barstools with backs, but overall I see the appeal of 22 Ships and would say that it is one of the better meals I have had in a western establishment in Hong Kong.  I could easily see myself coming back here (provided the wait time is much less)!

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