Earlier this month, The Pottinger — Sheung Wan’s boutique hotel bordering the historic thoroughfare of the same name — welcomed a new tenant in the form of Room 309. The latest venue from Tastings Group (the prolific restaurateurs behind Quinary, VEA and Angel’s Share) is a diminutive 22-seat bar overseen by Antonio Lai — a local celebrity of sorts amongst the Hong Kong drinks scene.
In line with his now-distinctive style, Room 309 deals primarily in elaborate craft cocktails, masquerading on the surface as an innocuous hotel suite. The hidden bar is a derivative concept — explored effectively in recent years by establishments around Asia such as Speak Low (Shanghai) and Hope & Sesame (Guangzhou). The star of the show at Room 309 is the Invisible Menu: a collection of eight clear concoctions invented by Lai and co; but plenty more surprises await in this hidden bar’s more conventional offerings.
Intended to evoke the ambience of a stately hotel suite, merely accessing Room 309 requires a novel gesture. At first instance, guests are invited to “The Reception”: an ad hoc staging ground on The Pottinger’s third floor where electronic cards are distributed. After receiving the proverbial keys to the castle, you’re ushered toward an unassuming set of doors. Tapping the electronic locks — reminiscent of the kind you’d find in any given hotel corridor — transports you into the world of Room 309: all antique fixtures, walnut furniture and period stationary. The kind of environ, we’re told, that Wilde might have drunk himself to oblivion in.
In theory, all of this sounds quite nifty and experiential. But Room 309’s concept never fully coalesces due to a lack of concerted world building. For one, (at the time of our visit) the venue’s secretive “Reception” is simply located in the neighbouring Envoy restaurant & bar: a creative choice that seems inexplicable given the existence of an actual (and altogether more believable) hotel reception area in the lobby. In addition, the decision to place the venue on a busy floor populated exclusively by restaurants betrays its “hideaway” conceit; something that might have been rectified by situating the bar on one of The Pottinger’s many guest room floors.
Despite Room 309 lacking the strength of its narrative convictions, adventurous drinkers will be relieved to know that Lai’s alchemic cocktails remain intact. The aforementioned Invisible Menu is nothing if not ambitious: tackling high-concept ideas like sensory deprivation through use of redistilled, colourless beverages. (Half the entries on the invisible menu involve some kind of spirit-based re-distilate.)
This approach — encouraging guests to challenge preconceived notions about appearance, flavour, texture et al — is epitomised in the Vanishing Watermelon Martini ($128): made on a base of Absolut Elyx and watermelon, the latter ingredient is rendered invisible thanks to a centrifugal process which separates the fruit’s pulpy red particulate from its refreshing floral essence. Each sip doubles as a dialectic invitation: encouraging drinkers to parse out individual elements like sea salt foam or basil tincture and marvel at their capacity for transformation.
If beverages like the Vanishing Martini strike you as a bit too fitfully clever, a more concise drinking experience can be had with the “309 Classics”. With strong spirit-forward flavours reminiscent of what you’d find in a mid-century hotel bar, tempered by their surprising friendliness to a gentler palette — Room 309’s classics prove to be the underrated foil to Lai’s more obvious signature cocktails.
Forgotten gems like the Champagne Cocktail ($138) — a nod to the inimitable Ingrid Bergman– are carefully calibrated for a wide audience; all the while conforming to basic tenets of mid-century mixology. All of the traditional elements are there — brut, bitters, the contextually extravagant sugar cube — but Lai sneaks in his own little Easter eggs (e.g. a VSOP wash in the champagne flute) that echo his history of experimentation at various other venues. In light of Hong Kong’s recent August heat wave, we also found the Whisky Smash ($128) to be particularly enjoyable: a refreshing frisson of bourbon, simple syrup and other garnishes all served bracingly cold in the familiar guise of a mint julep.
Although the notion of a hotel room doubling up as a speakeasy is fertile storytelling ground, Room 309’s attempt suffers a little in the offing: perhaps more marketing ploy than exhaustively explored concept. Nevertheless, devotees of Lai’s particular brand of mixology — a multi-sensory approach which garnered him the coveted title of “Region’s Best Bartender” from Diageo World Class 2015 — will find plenty to enjoy during their stay, from expectation defying creations like the Crystal Old Fashioned (many of Lai’s invisible recipes originated at Quinary) to a selection of cleverly modernised classics. Whether you’re experiencing yogurt gin with wide-eyed aplomb for the very first time or pounding back your ninth negroni of the evening, Room 309 is everything you’d expect from an Antonio Lai venue, grounded by the consistent and imaginative mixology of its head honcho.