The new year brings a bounty of new restaurants to Hong Kong and at least as many listicles listing all of those places that you simply must try. By the time there is time to try a few, some have already gone and an even newer crop has arrived. Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely fun to be had going to the trendiest new tavern in town. But amidst the openings and closings, this column has also tried to identify a few of those restaurants that have successfully navigated that Scylla and Charybdis of the business in Hong Kong – high rents and fickle tastes. In that spirit, it seemed time to go back to one of the first Spanish restaurants in the city – Olé, which has sat on the upper part of Ice House Street (next to FLY) for almost 20 years.
Olé’s executive chef, Jesus Pascual, hails direct from Spain where he trained at several Michelin starred restaurants. I first visited the restaurant during the darkest days of SARS in March 2003 when only one other table was occupied, and by diners who wore masks when not engaged in the actual act of eating. Olé survived SARS (as did I) and, despite the gloomy atmosphere, the food was memorable enough to warrant return visits from time to time for tempting tapas and plentiful paellas. It was thus with anticipation that I recently returned to Olé after a few years’ break to see if the quality continued to shine.
I was not disappointed. On my recent visit, we started with tapas portions of three starters – the Flame-Grilled Asparagus with Romesco Sauce (HKD70), Sautéed Chorizo with Garlic and Parsley (HKD80) and Clams Andalusian Style (HKD75). The asparagus was excellent, perfectly cooked al dente with the slightly caramelised flavour that comes with grilling. The vegetable was lightly salted and topped with some diced red onions. It was delicious on its own and even better with a dollop of the creamy Catalonian nut and red pepper romesco sauce.
Chorizo with garlic and parsley
The chorizo, on the other hand, was the only real disappointment of the night. Chorizo is a pork sausage native to the Iberian Peninsula packed in natural intestine casing and flavoured with dried smoked red peppers. I love chorizo for its spicy meatiness and somewhat crumbly texture and never fail to order it when having tapas (or on most other occasions when available). The chorizo at Olé was milder than expected, almost bland; it lacked the usual oily burst of flavour. Maybe it was a bad batch or maybe it had been frozen too long; either way, that was disappointing. On the other hand, the clams were fresh and delicious served in a white wine and olive oil broth richly flavoured with whole garlic cloves. The tender cooked garlic was almost as tasty as the clams themselves.
For our mains, we ordered Lobster Paella for two (HKD490) and a portion of the suckling pig cooked in the Segovia way (HKD 320, although whole and half pigs are available for larger parties and/or appetites). Segovian suckling pig is a traditional dish from the small but historic city of Segovia near Madrid, using Segovian piglets that have been milk-fed and cooked with salt and water only. Traditionally, the cooked piglet is cut with a dinner plate instead of a knife to show off both the crackle of the skin and the tenderness of the meat. While I don’t guarantee that the piglets used by Olé hail direct from Segovia, the skin was indeed browned and cracklingly crispy, and the meat tender and delicious with no additional flavouring required.
The paellas, a rice dish from the Valencian region, are also a highlight of Olé. I have fond memories of the squid ink paella but on this occasion we chose the paella with lobster. Visually, the dish is striking, served in a large iron skillet with a halved lobster steamed bright red, resting on a deep orange-yellow layer of rice flecked with bright green chopped parsley. The taste was just as impressive, with bits of lobster flavouring the rich layer of rice suffused with olive oil and saffron and studded with peas, among other ingredients. Whether this paella would satisfy the taste buds of a native Valencian I do not know, but it certainly left us fully sated on this evening.
Traditional red sangria
Before concluding, I must also mention that Olé is decorated in a classic Spanish restaurant style complete with Iberian tiles, Spanish ceramics, dim lighting and even a faux spiral staircase. There’s a full menu of Spanish wines, three types of sangria and even a duo of musicians playing the Spanish guitar. Cutting edge this is not; there is no molecular gastronomy to be found and the design is devoid of clean lines. Nonetheless, it is as good a place to take your parents or the date you’re trying to impress. Perhaps, that is because by the third glass of sangria or after a few bits of tender pork and crisp skin, it should all seem just about perfect. Here’s hoping for another 20 years.
Olé: 1/F, Shun Ho Tower, 24-30 Ice House Street, Central, Hong Kong (Google Maps)