From humble and tentative beginnings launching their first brick-and-mortar Italian restaurant in Wan Chai — a true labour of love built on a shoe-string budget — Pirata Group’s Manuel Palacio and Christian Talpo have come a long way. They’ve since shown us the fire-fuelled kitchens of Northern Spain at The Optimist; seduced pasta lovers at Pici; and provided us with one of the city’s only genuinely good Nikkei (that’s Peruvian-Japanese) restaurants at TokyoLima.
With the first few concepts slowly introduced over the span of several years since Pirata first debuted in 2015, the dynamic duo seem to be suddenly travelling at lightspeed this year, banging out seven venues in the last 12 months alone: MEATS in SoHo; dumpling house Chifa; two branches of pasta bar Pici; Indian restaurant Chaiwala along with the adjacent British salon Hugger Mugger; and, still in its first few months of infancy, modern Chinese eatery Madame Ching.
Opened earlier this May in the Star Street Precinct, Madame Ching represents Palacio and Talpo’s foray into the category of ‘hip, modern Chinese’ restaurants (think Happy Paradise, Dragon Noodles Academy and Lee Lo Mei) that have joined the local dining conversation in recent years, relying on a combination of old Hong Kong nostalgia and a buzzing, hip vibe to draw in a more diverse, fun-loving (and largely more expat) crowd.
At Madame Ching, there’s a distinct East-meets-West vibe, with interiors embracing the colonial-style, open-air vibe that’s been a popular design blueprint around this part of Wan Chai. It’s a room that functions as well for a quick power lunch as for a long and lingering dinner: cosy and comfortable décor with casual banquettes and evenly spaced four-tops, a touch of greenery from hanging planters on the walls, and colourful framed artwork and photos. Materials consist mostly of rattan and light wood, with low-hanging lamps and wooden shutters large enough to stream in plenty of sunlight.
Colourful framed photos in various sizes on the walls pay tribute to old Hong Kong: Sourced from local markets, the photos range from old portraits of the famous Kadoorie family to cheeky Chinese mistresses — one of which we might assume to be Madame Ching herself, the titular heroine of the restaurant who’s said to have been a “fearless female pirate who commandeered the South China Seas”.
Lending space to the somewhat narrow room is the glass-enclosed kitchen with counter seating, perfect for couples or for awkward first dates where the kitchen theatre can help grease the wheels on any lulls in dinner conversation. For our money, these are the best seats in the house: sitting under the row of hanging roast meats, you can catch the chefs wok-frying, hacking into the bones of roasted chicken and duck, and adding the final flourishes at the pass.
Food & Drink
The chef here is Son Pham: A US-born chef of Vietnamese heritage, he’s spent the bulk of his culinary career devoted to the study of Chinese cooking, training under the acclaimed Canadian celebrity chef Susur Lee. At Madame Ching, Son draws on his eclectic background to put his own cheeky spin on Chinese dishes (those that can be seen as more open to interpretation); while, perhaps wisely, adhering to age-old methods when it comes to preparing the traditional roast meats.
At lunchtime, a concise one-page offering comes as a set menu: HK$148 for a starter, main, vegetable/side, and optional dessert (plus HK$15). Dinner offers more range, with a dedicated section for BBQ roasts (pork belly, lamb neck, roast duck and baby back ribs), sharing-style meats, noodles/fried rice and vegetable dishes. For those who want a nibble of everything, there’s what has become somewhat of a Pirata Group signature: the Chef’s Banquet Menu (HK$350 per person), which gets you a sampling of all the key dishes.
Going the a la carte route, we decide to kick off our meal with the hamachi crudo (HK$120), slivers of buttery sashimi which boast sweetness from a simple tare sauce and a lovely aniseed flavour from red shiso. Next, we tuck into two of the more creative offerings, where the star protein is swapped out in familiar recipes: the mapo “tofu” (HK$120) arrives almost like a beef tartare, with puffed up sheets of yuba (tofu skins) acting as a dipping vehicle for scooping up a fragrant minced pork mixture. In the Typhoon Shelter Tofu (HK$90), giant tofu blocks replace the crustaceans in the original version of the dish, jutting out like boulders against an avalanche of fried garlic, chilli and scallions.
For the most part, the best dishes on the menu are the ones where chef Son veers off-script, applying the fundamentals of any great dish — a good balance of sweet, spicy, crunchy, salty and acidic components — to out-of-the-box combinations. We lick our fingers clean from the Cantonese Cuban (HK$90), which gets constructed with youtiao in place of sandwich rolls. The fried dough sticks are halved, flattened on the griddle, and coaxed from light gold to a deep, dark bronze, the extra char creating a sturdy base for a flavoursome filling of tender pulled pork, spring onion jam for sweetness, tangy mustard, and pickles for a good hit of acidity.
Meats are touch and go: We enjoy the crispy pigeon, which arrives ceremoniously arranged on the plate, with the gamey flavour of the bird enhanced by a subtly sweet sauce. The skin is brilliantly crisped, with little pockets of char and fat to nibble on along the edges of the bone. The roast duck (HK$180/half) is more average: the flavour is inherent, but we find the skin flabby and the leg a tad dry.
General Son’s Chicken (HK$95) is an instant signature: a giant mound of fried chicken boasting all the sticky, syrupy goodness of the American-Chinese takeout staple. The meat is moist and carries its crispy coating well, although the glaze has been taken a bit too far, with a pool of sauce at the bottom of the plate that’s taken on the texture of hardened caramel. The dish is rendered less cloying thanks to the addition of Sansho peppers — although we would have preferred dried chillies rather than the incendiary peppercorns which can quickly overpower.
For a menu that seems to rely on spice and crunch for appeal, the brussels sprouts (HK$85) are surprisingly bland: colourless nobs tossed in with a few lifeless strands of garlic. Equally disappointing are the dan dan noodles (HK$75): the traditionally fragrant, sharp and vivid flavours of the chewy noodles are muted by an oddly gloopy sauce that tastes like gelatinised chicken stock.
However, we pick right back up with the sticky onigiri (HK$65): triangular pocket-sized, dried scallop-studded snacks inspired by the Japanese convenience store staple. Dusted in furikake, they’d make for an ideal happy hour snack paired with the Sleepy Dragon cocktail (HK$90), where a base of Plantation 3 rum is balanced with burnt orange, vanilla syrup and a splash of ginger beer.
As for sweets, the restaurant keeps it sparingly simple with just a few desserts to choose from. We enjoy the ovaltine custard (HK$48), which pairs the sweet ma lai gao steamed Chinese sponge cake found in almost every dim sum restaurant with a rich and luscious Ovaltine custard.
It’s a pretty fair summation to say dishes can be hit or miss at Madame Ching. Naysayers will comment that the assorted siu mei can be found at any number of local hole-in-the-walls for better and/or cheaper, and they wouldn’t be wrong; but Madame Ching doesn’t purport to be the roast meats expert in town, relying instead on a winning mix of creativity, ambience and service.
Blessing or curse, the hip, modern Chinese eatery has officially become its own category of cuisine in Hong Kong, with young restaurateurs diverging from the path of the older generation, paying homage to Cantonese culinary heritage while recognising the need for social hangouts where ambience (and a fortified drinks list) are just as important as nailing the glossy skin of perfectly roasted char siu. Evaluated on this playing field, Madame Ching represents another solid addition to a divergent pathway of Hong Kong’s evolving culinary canon — and to Pirata Group’s burgeoning stable of communal, crowd-pleasing concepts.
Opening Hours: Mon–Sun, 12pm–10:30pm (Sat open until 11pm).
Recommended Dishes: Hamachi crudo, Typhoon Shelter Tofu, crispy pigeon, General Son’s Chicken, sticky onigiri.
Price: HK$148 for set lunch; dinner ranging from HK$300-500 per person.
Noise Level: A buzzing vibe helped along by the open kitchen and street-side views.
Service: Smart, hospitable and inviting.