You are warmly greeted as you enter Neighborhood, a French restaurant that is nestled on a lovely patch of quietude adjacent to bustling Hollywood Road in Central. They lead you past all the tables that are well illuminated by the front picture window and seat you and your wife in a back room at a table for two against the furthest wall. The room is painted concrete, low-ceilinged, windowless, bunker-like. You sit facing the wall. It reminds you of the room your mother stored patio furniture in when you were a child, which she stocked with cans of condensed milk for the family to last out nuclear winter in the event of war (think of it, living for two billion years on condensed milk in a grim room with a difficult lot). There, the two of you sit forlornly when a group with three bouncy tykes is seated nearby and the children begin squealing – far be it from their parents to stifle their joy. And the room becomes intolerable.
So they seat you at the bar, often a convivial spot, but in this case, perfect for watching them unload dirty dishes and from which to observe the impatient digs by staff directed at the poor, uncomplaining dishwasher.
And so begins your romantic date at the restaurant that is said to be amongst Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants (19th place to be exact).
The meal starts with a medley of flash-fried peppers, green and red, mainly Padrón, charred handsomely, dotted with snips of delicious Chinese ham. They are as good as this dish can be, though you can’t help noting that you are paying HK$125 for, at most, HK$8 worth of peppers and almost zero effort from the chef (and you have to ask for salt to sprinkle on them). A middle-school home-economics class could have slung this dish just as well. Still, when you pay for restaurant food in Hong Kong, it’s a given that you pay more for the rent component then for the ingredients themselves.
Good bread comes. Not made in-house. The butter is cold and difficult to spread. Such a little thing to let butter warm to room temperature. Sigh.
Next, an entire smoked grey mullet, cold, split open, all pin bones removed meticulously, drizzled with olive oil, a wedge of lemon to squeeze over. The meat is firm, flavourful, moist and delightfully redolent of smoke. A memorable dish that you wish more restaurants would emulate.
At this point, if only foreboding music had played, cueing you to leave. But it never does, does it?
The food comes too quickly. You ask them to slow it. Your wife orders a glass of Le Fouleur Durouleur Frères for HK$135. The bottle the waitress pours from is almost spent, just enough left to fill your wife’s glass with a third less than other pours, and this includes the bottle’s granular dregs. The waitress does not open another bottle to top off her glass. Your wife, accustomed in her marriage to saintly patience, only mentions this toward the end of the meal. Too late to protest, it sticks in your gum line just out of reach. Like a pin bone.
Artichoke barigoule with pancetta, an artichoke braise. Real French food at last! Great French food combines ingredients like fissile material to release gargantuan flavour. Typically, the broth of a barigoule is comprised of wine, stock and vinegar, reduced. How can you describe the broth of Neighborhood’s artichoke barigoule? Imagine a bag of frozen artichoke hearts. Imagine letting it defrost completely. Imagine cutting a small opening in one corner and pouring out the defrosted juices and warming them. That’s what their broth tastes like: watery, pallid, artichokey, without intensity of flavour, depth or dimension. Maybe it needed to be reduced more and perhaps a knob of butter would have helped. It is somewhat aversive, in fact. It is the only broth you have ever encountered that made bread taste worse after dipping it in. The artichokes are imperfectly trimmed, so there are fibrous leaves on the outside that are inedible (and that have to be carefully separated before they end up in your gullet). The crown of fibres above the choke is not removed, which you find off-putting. There are a few chunks of carrot and onion, a few soggy lardons. After a taste, neither of you can eat it.
You love sweetbreads, crisped on the outside, with some kind of sprightly sauce showcasing the saucier’s genius. Perhaps the best you’ve ever had were napped with fresh sorrel molten over gentle heat by your dad, a great reverse engineer of restaurants dishes, served on toast points. Crisping is critical so that the dense organ meat has a textural, caramelised foil. Usually they’re dredged in flour, no egg, and sautéed (although you’ve had delicious ones barbecued). Nor should the chunks of sweetbread be too large or the dense richness of the organ meat is overwhelming. Neighborhood’s version is dipped in panko (breadcrumbs for the lazyman) and deep-fried like chicken nuggets. So the sweetbreads aren’t crisp themselves, just the coating. It would be like coating potato slices in panko and frying them to make potato chips. They are sizeable and look distressingly like enlarged prostates. There is no sauce of the sort you had hoped for but, instead, a sauce gribiche that is essentially mayonnaise, probably made up in bulk earlier on, indistinguishable from tartar sauce at a fish ‘n’ chips joint. Perhaps they see this as a smart hack for a difficult dish, but it doesn’t work. It is terrible. Cloying. Slightly horrifying even. The two of you take tentative tastes and can eat no more, the only sweetbreads you have ever shunned.
Buffalo chicken wings. What the hell? They don’t crisp the wings. It is implicit, elemental, imperative that the wings be crisped. In the United States, even children know this. It’s part of the citizenship test. They serve the wrong part of the wing, the outer joint, not the drumette. The sauce on the julienned celeriac beneath the wings is watery.
Finally, a chance for redemption, handmade tagliolini with pork jowl and anchovy. They cook the tagliolini a dot past al dente. The pork jowl, aka guanciale, is not in crisp ribbons, but one circular piece, mainly fat, not crisp, a floppy splat. You eye it with dismay while your wife inches her chair backward. If they really want to go this route, you think lardo, which would melt into the pasta, would be a wiser choice. The sauce – butter with bits of anchovy – is inexplicably tasteless. And aren’t anchovy and guanciale redundant anyway, both salty and unctuous? Some Parmesan might have rescued this dish. Why is none provided? What could their reasoning be? For HK$165, a bit wouldn’t have been out of line, even as an option. You and your wife push the dish away.
The meal ends with two canelés, both burnt on the bottom like the heat shield of a returning space capsule.
The service has a tinge of warmth and is reasonably attentive einquiring often, at least, if we want another drink), though you think it’s unlikely it would win any sartorial prizes. One woman, possibly the manager, wears a blue, demin-like bomber jacket that has the right look for working a ball-game concession stand. Though it is early in the evening, many staff look rumpled. Communication is slightly difficult because many servers have limited English skills.
The meal costs HK$1,650 with a bottle of sparkling water and five glasses of wine between you, including two of champagne at HK$180 each. Since you know how challenging it is to run a restaurant, what thin profit margins they operate on and how the coronavirus has severely disrupted business, it truly pains you to say that this is the worst meal you’ve had in Hong Kong – and for serious scratch at that.
Neighborhood is usually described online as a French restaurant (though some sources say it’s also European and/or Italian), but the food only exhibits trace elements of French. They have taken on mainly unchallenging dishes and improbably flubbed most. The food is poorly conceived, poorly executed and poorly served by a team that doesn’t look sharp. You are sceptical of the process by which it was chosen as the 19th best restaurant in Asia this year. It’s not within parsecs of that.
To be fair, there is one aspect of this restaurant you admire. The dishwasher. You observed him up close. He did his unglamorous job diligently, with grace under gratuitous pressure. Bravo, young man.
Rating (on a scale of 0 to 5)
Overall value: 0
61–63 Hollywood Road, Central, 5713 6913
In order to review objectively, David Greenberg does not solicit or accept comped meals and anonymously reviews restaurants.
Read more of David’s reviews for many Hong Kong restaurants on his website, www.ardentgourmet.com, and remember to like Foodie on Facebook