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22 Ships – Jason Atherton’s take on tapas in Wan Chai

Get out your fans because it’s Español fever in Hong Kong! We’re currently experiencing an influx of Spanish eateries (see BCN, Boqueria and Vi Cool for further proof!) but THE most hotly anticipated of the lot is 22 Ships, from Brit celebrity chef Jason Atherton. Atherton, protégé of Ferran Adrià and the brains behind hot London resto Pollen Street Social, has brought not only culinary kudos, but also a refreshing spin on tapas classics to the streets of Wan Chai.

22 Ships may be small (only 35 seats!), but its black and white minimalistic décor, an open layout and a hip laidback atmosphere lessen the feeling of confinement. The exposed front with counter seating and the capacity to spill out on to the street for casual drinks and nibbles gives an air of Spanish al fresco dining. The best seats are at the bar around the open kitchen, where you can be entertained by the food preparations!

A no-reservation policy seems to be de rigueur in HK at the moment; definitely go as early as possibly to avoid disappointment and possible starvation, as 22 Ships has yet to establish a table time limit! Our party of four were determined not to be kept waiting so arrived promptly at opening time and snagged ourselves a kitchen view at the bar. The only splurge of colour in the restaurant comes from the vivid red font on our menus, which display a concise array of para picar, meat, vegetables, eggs and desserts. As the four of us were ravenous, we chose something from each category, before settling into our bar stools with a sangria in hand. Interestingly, the sangrias looked a little like raspberry smoothies topped with foam; apparently the sangria is concocted as normal but injected with air to create this effect.

We were curious about the Manchego cheese and Iberico ham toasties and were delighted to find four perfect triangles with a comforting beautiful creamy filling of cheese, bechamel sauce and ham, topped with a fried quail’s egg. Having got off to a good start, our meal continued with the arrival of the Spanish breakfast with chorizo and potato. Whilst the flavours in unison were excellent – the tomato puree’s tanginess meshing well with the chorizo’s picante kick and the poached egg – there was too little of the chorizo’s explosive flavour and the potato was overly smooth, leaving the dish under-textured for my liking.

Moving onto seafood, we treated ourselves to the marinated hamachi with gazpacho dressing. The hamachi was a fine but small dish; the slices were of a good thickness and the gazpacho had a refreshing tang that, coupled with the sliced black olives and the red onion, gave the hamachi an added dimension. We loved the miso-grilled mackerel with its perfectly charred edges and crisp skin. The flesh peeled away beautifully and hints of miso enveloped the fish, while a mild wasabi avocado puree made for a pleasant but not entirely impactful accompaniment.

I felt we needed to try at least one vegetable dish and my eyes fell upon the peas, broad beans, goats curd, Iberico ham and mint dressing. I was duly impressed by this simple seeming (if again rather small) dish and loved the wafer-thin Iberico ham, the cool clean taste of the mint against the sweetness of the peas and the wonderful tartness of the goats curd.

However, the real stars on the menu are the meat dishes. The baked smoked bone marrow with onion jam, sourdough and gentleman’s relish butter was a truly masterful dish. The aromatic bone marrow, scraped out and breadcrumbed before being nestled back into the bone, was divinely soft and rich. I gleefully spread a heap onto my sourdough crouton and relished the rich taste of the marrow with the sweet caramelised onion. Anyone for seconds… or thirds?!

Who can resist the pull of mini-burgers, especially when they’re chargrilled Iberico pork and foie gras ones? Another first-rate dish, this was foodie heaven for me. The patty was juicy, thick and full of flavour, and I especially liked the way the creamy avocado dip balanced out the richness of the burger.

The roasted lamb cutlets and the suckling pig were the most generously sized dishes of the night and went down a treat with our party of four. The lamb was amazingly succulent and the spiced olive marinade paired splendidly with it, curbing the fattiness of the lamb. Meanwhile, the suckling pig’s skin was to die-for – crisp and full of sinful fatty goodness, I would have happily eaten a whole plate of the skin alone! The meat mustn’t be disregarded though; it fell off the bone and was mouth wateringly tender. Definitely a dish to be savoured.

At this point, we were starting to get meat sweats, but the desserts were too tempting… so we had three! The ‘PBJ’ peanut ice cream with salted peanut caramel was a playful medley of sweet, sour and salty flavours, initially a little overwhelming for the palate. The cherry sorbet was a very refreshing counter balance to the peanut ice cream and we all enjoyed the pop of salt at the end.

The olive oil brioche with chocolate ganache and sea salt was an interesting combination. The nuttiness from the brioche was overpowered slightly by the bitter edge of the chocolate and there was too much sea salt to really even out the flavours. Even chocoholic Rach was a little disappointed by this one!

The last was an intriguing goats cheese sorbet with honeycomb and sweet walnuts. This was a little too adventurous for two of my dining companions, and I have to admit, even as a goat’s cheese lover, this packed quite a goaty tangy punch. Whilst I commend the effort and the exciting dry-ice effect on presentation, some honeycomb and sweet walnuts were not enough to combat the sharpness of the sorbet.

22 Ships is sailing in the right direction with efficient knowledgeable staff and some outstanding dishes. The no-reservation policy and bar seating arrangement may be problematic for large groups and I’m concerned that with the kitchen’s attention to detail (which is of course, fantastic and a must) and the lack of a table time-limit, turnover could be slow. We also found that the portions, for the most part, were on the small side for their prices, with our meal setting us back $500 per head (and that’s without a service charge!). Despite this, Atherton has brought a fresh take on Spanish tapas to Hong Kong and whilst I wouldn’t peg it as budget-friendly, I would definitely encourage diners to have 22 Ships on their to-try list.

22 Ships G/F, 22 Ship Street, Wan Chai
2555 0722 www.22ships.hk

Check out more food-related writings from Michelle on her blog, Chopstixfix!

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