There’s no shortage of wine bars in Hong Kong, with nearly every neighbourhood boasting a corner spot with a decent selection of wine. Admittedly, it’s more often a bar for simply drinking wine than a venue for discerning wine lovers, with a menu offering a limited selection of wines by the glass, dominated by select regions (e.g. France). Hotel bars usually present a wider (and premium) selection, but they don’t offer the cosy appeal of an after-work watering hole nor pricing that’s easy on the wallet.
Enter James Suckling Wine Central. Still officially in its soft-launch phase, it’s tucked discreetly on the second floor of a serviced apartment building on Staunton Street in SoHo, wedged between restaurants and bars. A collaboration between wine critic James Suckling and architect Sean Dix (who counts some of Hong Kong’s trendiest restaurants as clients including Black Sheep Restaurants, Yardbird and Belon), the spacious interior is modern and sleek, with rounded concrete walls and wooden trim panels.
The 2,000-square-foot space features a wine bar with access to more than 200 wines by the glass and 500+ bottles (many from Suckling’s private collection), a more intimate wine lounge with plush seating and a fine-dining Korean restaurant for those who prefer a sit-down meal. The experience is akin to walking into a posh private members’ club – except that Suckling designed the venue with the intent of sharing it with others.
“It’s been a dream of mine to open a wine bar,” Suckling says. “I want to share my lifelong passion for wine with everyone in Hong Kong.” The wine list features personal favourites including a cellar selection with the same wines that Suckling has been collecting in his own cellar in Tuscany. Wine enthusiasts will also be excited by the 100-point list that only features the wines that Suckling has rated a perfect 100 points during his four-decade career as a wine critic.
The experience is an approachable one for wine enthusiasts and pros alike, with wines by the glass priced from $70 . Given that Suckling treats it as a second home in Hong Kong, it’s also an opportunity to meet and rub shoulders with an internationally recognised wine critic who tastes 22,000 wines a year (in his words, even more than Wine Spectator) and enthusiastically wants you to try his recommendations and trade tasting notes. He’s even particular about the vessel used for wine drinking; the customised Lalique stemware bearing his name is a collaboration with the famous French crystal maker.
Given how Suckling has made a name for himself, the wine list has a heavy emphasis on Italy in addition to Bordeaux and Port. For those who like to venture from the oft-travelled wine path, there is a small but lovely section of wines from Beaujolais as well as the “Great Wines of the Andes”, a sampling of Suckling’s favourites from Chile and Argentina, representing his namesake event.
There’s a noticeable gap when it comes to Burgundy, which even Suckling acknowledges in a Burgundy-loving place such as Hong Kong and thus makes an exception for customers. While generally no external wines are allowed on the premises (hence the absence of corkage), customers are allowed to bring one bottle of Burgundy. The expectation is that you also buy a bottle on the list and that you call ahead to indicate what type of bottle you will be bringing in (suffice to say, make sure it’s a good producer and vintage).
What’s interesting is that when you do ask Suckling to introduce Wine Central, he first and foremost calls it a restaurant. According to Suckling, “I wanted to open a wine bar with great Korean food featuring my favourite wines.” Along with co-owner Francesco Lee of MOYO, his wife, Marie Kim-Suckling, is also a co-owner (and Korean) . The kitchen is helmed by Che Sang Hyun (formerly of Jinjuu), who is spearheading a higher-end menu offering sharing platters of artfully created Korean dishes.
Highlights on the menu include the James Suckling roasted pig ($298), Hanwoo beef ($588), prawn jang rice ($218), Korean fried chicken ($128), fried cauliflower ($188) and the beautifully arranged house-made kimchi platter ($78). The dishes are subtle, flavourful and not overpowering, as one would typically associate with Korean cuisine.
The wines on the list pair well with the food. Whether it’s by calculation or the fact that Suckling prefers to offer all-round, approachable wines on the menu, customers needn’t stress much about ordering the “right” wine.
Whether you choose to go for a drink at the bar, chill in the lounge or have a seated meal at the restaurant, patrons can take comfort in the fact that all the wines on the list have scored 90 points or more, so there’s not much room for error. The concept can seem a bit experimental for Hong Kong, and it remains to be seen whether it will take off in a city that notoriously enjoys its neighbourhood wine bars located at street level. Yet as Suckling puts it, “This wine bar is for all of us. It’s a place where the wine novice should feel as comfortable as the wine connoisseur, because drinking wine is fun and doesn’t have to be pretentious or nerve-wracking.” We’ll cheerfully raise a glass to that.
2/F, 22 Staunton Street, SoHo, Central, 2539 7999, firstname.lastname@example.org
This write-up is based on a complimentary media tasting provided in exchange for an honest review and no monetary compensation. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s.