One has to imagine that during the genesis of ThinkWine — a lofty new bar which opened inside up-and-coming F&B destination LL Tower last month — its founders had the ‘do it yourself’ spirit firmly in mind. Frustrated by the prevailing culture of wine bars in Hong Kong, sommeliers Romain Loriot and Jean-Benoît Isselé decided to take matters into their own hands, offering a compelling alternative in the guise of ThinkWine. Blessedly, what the two hospitality veterans have come up with is a venue which embraces the ideals of République française. Here, WSET-taking know-it-alls rub shoulders comfortably with the 5 o’clock crowd; and their every interaction — likely boozy, definitely convivial — occurs in a setting that is egalitarian, welcoming and non-judgmental. So pretty much the exception to the norm then.
The duo’s new venture — self-financed and independently owned — joins the growing community of friendly neighbourhood wine bars that have been opening at a steady clip this past year. Alongside scene-stealing names like Brut! and Shady Acres, ThinkWine is the sort of watering hole which Hongkongers are long overdue for. To wit, it’s a serious wine bar which subverts the appeal of that culture beyond stuffed shirts and prix fixe menus — something that ought not to be taken for granted in a city that’s often too self-serious for its own good.
Sequestered away on level two of a commercial building in the heart of Mid-Levels, from the moment you (somewhat abruptly) cross the threshold it’s clear ThinkWine is an intensely personal undertaking. JB and Romain will be the first to admit they’re not designers, but the two have done a commendable job dressing their millennial-approved space with a touch of Baroque drama — from the Instagram-friendly lighting, to a frieze painted by local artist Riya Chandiramani and splashy furniture sourced mostly from Christian Lacroix. Over the tannoy, tracks like Redbone and No Woman No Cry blast heavily in rotation — a sonic hat tip to this bar’s intended vibe and audience.
A large sliding door at one end of the main lounge gives way to the terrace, where guests can recline glass in hand and absorb the bustle of Shelley Street below. (According to JB, a cigar menu is already in the works, from which guests will be able to order a variety of Cuban, Nicaraguan and Dominican smokes.) The layout also accommodates two private spaces: there’s a conventional dining room — a small, intimate space plastered with the memorabilia of such iconic chefs as Francois Darroze and Paul Bocuse — that comfortably seats 8 people (and stands 20); or the considerably more dramatic cellar, where drinkers congregate around an island counter, surrounded by a sea of bottles.
Unsurprisingly, ThinkWine bills itself as a serious destination for oenophiles in Hong Kong — minus all of the artifice that usually goes along with that. Granted, there is a certain inexorable pull towards France, but between JB and Romain — who both specialise in very different yet complementary styles of winemaking — a healthy distribution in terms of price, origin and complexity is evident. Of the 600+ references on offer, 24 are always poured by the glass, ranging from quaffable Tokaj (HK$90) to muscular premier crux from Burgundy’s lesser-known domaines (HK$560). This is to say nothing of the ‘blind tasting’ option (HK$180) — that allows drinkers to sample what often turns out to be relatively expensive pre-opened vintage, sold (in an effort to be democratic) at break-even prices.
A focus on French viticulture doesn’t mean JB & co are above pursuing some choice New World producers. A bottle of Clarendon Hills, for instance, offers a veritable crash course in the joys of South Australian Syrah, with the estate’s 2001 release — from the ‘smoking gun’ vineyard of Liandra — presenting aromas of acacia and aniseed, alongside an intensely peppery palette that makes this a shoe-in for cured meats or intense cheeses.
The absence of a full kitchen at ThinkWine — it’s more of a pantry situation — has had a clarifying effect on the food menu. Described by JB as “product focused”, bites are divided into four fairly straightforward categories: ‘Sea’, ‘Land’, ‘Farm’, and ‘Sweet Tooth’. As with the wines, there’s ample opportunity here for the pursuit of value: guests can mix and match three cheeses (HK$190) or cold cuts (HK$210) of their choosing, cribbing from a list of predominantly French family-owned producers. (Ham and chorizo, as an example, are sourced from Louis Ospital — an Iberico specialist who has been in the charcuterie business for 40 years.)
As you’d expect, the food menu’s primary purpose is to complement (or elevate, as the case may be) the quality of the wines. Pairings mostly involve a handful of strong contrasting flavours, though the most memorable dishes tend to be those made with a certain degree of gleeful excess. (Balik salmon laden with a huge spoonful of Oscietra caviar (HK$340) is the consummate example of this.)
As ever, the cardinal sins of Hong Kong’s wine bar scene are inconvenient opening hours and (in many cases) a real lack of interest in exciting casual drinkers. At ThinkWine, much is done to sidestep such cliches, leading to an experience which is likely to win massive plaudits from across the vino-drinking spectrum. In conjunction with service that is knowledgeable though not necessarily showy, the elevated lounge-like setting belies just how serious of a wine drinking destination this is. Maybe that’s the point: as JB and Romain well know, you learn a lot faster when you’re having fun.
Opening hours: Daily, 3pm–2am. Last food order at 1am.
Recommended drinks: 1985 Mas Amiel, 2001 Clarendon Hills ‘Liandra’, 2018 Domaine Bernard Defaix Côte de Lechet 1er Cru, 1973 Collection Bellenum 1er Cru (Les Santenots).
Price: HK$500 (average per head, inclusive of food).
Noise level: Intermediate, ideal for groups of 4 to 10.
Service: Relaxed and affable.