April 26, 2023

Michelin HK / Macau 2023: my 2 cents

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It has been many, many years since I last wrote a post to comment on the Rubberman and the annual award of the macarons. I used to point out what I considered to be "anomalies" in the first few editions, but got tired of it. After all, I'm a nobody and who gives a shit about what I think when the mighty Red Guide has been in existence for over 100 years?!

As I attended the announcement in person this year for the first time, instead of watching a livestream or waiting for the PR blurb after the fact, things felt a little different. A few restaurants and their chefs, with whom I have a deeper connection, have received what I and many others felt were long-overdue recognitions. I figured I would add my two cents' worth.

The biggest news of the day was undoubtedly the elevation of a restaurant to the pantheon of 3 macarons. This is a big deal. Looking at Rubberman's website, there are just 140 restaurants in the world which holds the distinction. So it's a very, very exclusive club.

There have been rumors since more than a year ago about someone getting promoted to 3 macarons, and some of my friends have offered their guesses as to who it should be. Pretty much all of those have been restaurants serving French cuisine. I myself certainly don't have any insights on this, so I always deflected the question when asked about my "predictions".

To my close circle, though, I have never been shy about who I thought the next 3 macaron should be. Around 11 months ago after a dinner at Ta Vie 旅, where we were served a number of dishes I had not seen previously, I felt very strongly that Sato-san and his team have upped their game significantly. In popular parlance, this was a "level up"/"next level" move... and in their situation that would mean moving from 2 to 3 macarons. I believed this so firmly that I said as much in the title of my blog post. I have also tried to persuade a certain chef whose restaurant is among the 140 to come with me to check out Ta Vie 旅, but so far it has proved futile.

The rumor mill began to work overtime a few days ago, and began pointing to a restaurant in Macau as the new candidate. This came as a surprise to me, but not having visited said restaurant since late 2019 - just a few months before the pandemic forced the shutdown of many restaurants in Macau - I really couldn't pass judgement. I remained skeptical but would certainly be happy for the team behind that resaurant if it came to pass.

Hours before the press event were to start, I received an update from a chef friend. The new member of this exclusive club would be Ta Vie 旅. I couldn't believe the news. I tried messaging Takano-san but received no reply.

Ta Vie 旅 was not among the restaurants awarded 2 macarons, while the previously rumored restaurant was. Then the official announcement was made. Fait accompli.

This wonderful couple, who has worked so long and so hard to build their dream, had no idea this was going to happen. As Sato-san no longer takes phone calls coming from numbers he does not recognize, it is likely he ignored the traditional congratulatory call from the powers that be. And the rumor mill was dead wrong about this until almost the very end. The joy and surprise at this honor was clearly evident.

I had been a fan of Sato-san's since my first visit to Tenku Ryugin (天空龍吟) in late 2012, and I was just as excited when Ta Vie 旅 opened and we paid our first visit in July 2015. I felt they deserved more than the single macaron they received in the 2016 edition of the Red Guide, but this was rectified in the 2017 edition.

I have always admitted that I was biased when it comes to this couple, but I've alwasys believed in the "pure, simple, seasonal" ethos touted by them. From the start, everything was made in-house. From the bread to the butter and the pasta or noodles. That may be easy for a hotel restaurant with a brigade, but not for a kitchen with a skeletal crew.

I have always felt saddened by the fact that Ta Vie 旅 remained one of the most-underrated restaurants in Hong Kong, as they never got the amount of business that I felt they should have gotten. For a restaurant with 2 macarons and which featured in Asia's 50 Best Restaurants for 5 years and had placed as high as No. 16 on the list, people just weren't beating down their doors to get a table. They got the accolades, but not the financial rewards. Life couldn't have been easy.

I am so, so happy for Sato-san and Takano-san, and of course the rest of their team. Few restaurants are more deserving of this honor, and it's a validation / vindication of their years of hard work and hardship.

The other friend whose dedication was vindicated is the Man in White T-shirt. Here's a guy I've known since 2010, whose restaurant(s) has garnered many fans both locally and globally. He's a pretty laid-back guy, and seems content to focus on running just one restaurant instead of an empire. He just wants to do things his way, even if it's not necessarily what makes him the most money. While I never discussed this matter with him, I'm not sure he was much bothered about the lack of a macaron. He is undoubtedly one of the most-beloved chefs in Hong Kong, as was given the Inedit Damm Chef's Choice Award 2022.

Neighborhood first entered Asia's 50 Best Restaurants in the 2018 edition and ranked as high as No. 9 in 2022. Now they have a macaron. This picture is the first I've seen him in a chef's jacket, and I'm not sure when I will see him in one again.

Finally, we have a rare instance of a restaurant being demoted from 3 macarons. Lung King Heen (龍景軒) was awarded with 3 macarons in the very first edition of the Red Guide for Hong Kong and Macau, and has maintained that status in each subsequent year - for a total of 14 consecutive years.

In my not-so-humble opinion, though, it was never worthy of its 3 macarons. At lunch with dim sum, it was much more refined and perhaps worthy of that status. Not so with the other dishes at dinner. A case in point was this tasting menu I had when I met the Dining Austrian for the first time. It was most certainly designed for visiting tourists and not locals.

For most of us, this status change is long-overdue. Not that we have something against Chef Tak - who for the first time chose not to attend the event - but it has been something that's been out of whack for years. So we feel this move is justified. Now if only the Rubberman would do something about another overrated Cantonese restaurant in this category...

Congratulations to all the chefs and their teams.

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