Get out your fans because it’s Español Fever in Hong Kong right now. We’re experiencing an influx of Spanish eateries and some will be muchos excited to learn that the most hotly anticipated in recent weeks is Brit celebrity chef, Jason Atherton’s 22 Ships. Chef Atherton, of Pollen Street Social Fame, protégé of Ferran Adrià and Gordon Ramsay has brought to the streets of Wan Chai, not only the culinary kudos, but also a refreshing, modern spin on Spanish tapas classics.
22 Ships is a hip, laid-back establishment. Due to its compact size (35 seats), black and white minimalistic décor and an open layout lessen the feeling of confinement. The exposed front with counter seating and the capacity to spill out on to the street for nibbles and casual drinks gives an air of Spanish al fresco dining. Best seats are at the bar around an open kitchen for diners to observe and be entertained by the food preparations.
The no reservation policy seems to be de rigour at the moment and I can certainly recommend going 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 to not be kept waiting so we 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, including four meat dishes, before settling into our bar stools with a sangria in hand. Interestingly, the sangrias looked a little like raspberry smoothies topped with foam, but it was then explained that the sangria is concocted as normal but injected with air to create this effect.
We were curious about the Manchengo cheese and Iberico ham toastie and were delighted to find four perfect toastie 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 little of this explosive flavour and the potato was overly smooth, leaving the dish under-textured for my liking.
Moving onto seafood, and we treated ourselves to the marinated hamachi with gazpacho dressing and the miso grilled mackerel with wasabi avocado and cucumber chutney. The hamachi was a fine but small dish. The slices were of a good thickness and the gazpacho had a refreshing tang which, coupled with the sliced black olives and the red onion gave the hamachi an added dimension. We loved the mackerel with its perfectly charred edges and crisp skin. The flesh peeled away beautifully and hints of miso enveloped the fish while the mild wasabi avocado puree made for a pleasant but not entirely impactful accompaniment.
Meat was definitely on the agenda that night, but I felt that we needed to try at least one vegetable dish. My eyes fell upon the peas, broad beans, goats curd, Iberico ham and mint dressing on the menu and when it arrived I was impressed by this seemingly simple dish. I loved the wafer thin Iberico ham and the cool, clean taste of the mint against the sweetness of the peas and the tartness of the goats curd was wonderful.
But the real stars of the menu are the meat dishes. The baked smoked bone marrow with onion jam and 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.
Who can resist the pull of mini-burgers, especially when they’re Char-grilled 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, with the gherkin creating a great crunch. I especially liked the way the creamy avocado dip balanced out the richness of the burger. I later used up the rest of the avocado dip with the garlic fries which were extremely moreish!
The roasted lamb cutlets and the suckling pig were the mostly 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. The suckling pig’s skin was to die-for. So 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 mouthwateringly 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 pea-nut caramel was a medley of sweet, sour and salty flavours, which can be a little overwhelming for the palate at first. 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 of the mouthful.
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 on the taste-buds.
The last was the 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 goats cheese lover, this packed quite a goaty, tangy punch. While I commend the effort and the exciting dry-ice effect on presentation, the honeycomb and the 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 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. Despite this, Atherton has brought to Hong Kong a fresh take on Spanish tapas and whilst I wouldn’t peg it as budget-friendly, I would encourage diners to have 22 Ships on their list for this month.
Chopstixfix rating: 3.5/5
22 Ships, 22 Ship Street, Wan Chai. +852 2555 0722 www.22ships.hk
You can also see this review on Sassy.